Wednesday, July 3, 2013

150 Years Ago Today

As a history buff in general, and with a specific fascination with the American Civil War, I've been very aware that the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg has been approaching - and indeed is now here.

As a side note, I would have blogged about this someplace else, but I had a recent conversation with Ryan Beaumont, and when he suggested a mini-blog chain on this day in history, I was thrilled to participate. Check out the thoughts from Ryan and Red Shoes. Thanks to Ryan for the idea, and for coordinating. And if you're here looking for sex or erotica, I'm sure I'll return there in my next post.

I was very fortunate in that I had an eighth-grade Social Studies teacher who made our unit on the Civil War a riveting experience. Before that, I only knew that barest essentials of the war (i.e., the North won, Abraham Lincoln was the President who saved the Union.) My teacher brought the subject to life, and I remember walking out of class every day excited to hear how the story would continue the next day. He sparked a life-long interest in the Civil War that has never abated.

Gettysburg battlefield is an easy day trip for me, and it's a trip I make at least once a year. I've been to a number of Civil War battlefields, and some are frankly disappointing - you may be standing on the same ground, but you can't really get a feel for the terrain and what happened there (I'm looking at you, Fredericksburg, and you, Spotsylvania Court House.) At Gettysburg, you can very much walk or drive the ground and get an excellent feel for what happened.

On a personal note, some of my in-laws are from a distant and exotic country, and when they were visiting a few years ago, we talked about possible day trips, and they very much wanted to tour Gettysburg. I was hesitant, and wondered if they'd really be interested, but they insisted they were interested - and we ended up having the best time. We did all the Visitor's Center exhibits and did a driving tour of the battlefield, and they wanted to know everything. It was a very fun day.

Why is Gettysburg interesting? First of all, because of the scale and the humanity. The two armies numbering a combined 160,000 men fought here, and almost a third of those were killed, wounded, or captured during the three-day battle in south-central Pennsylvania. It's the biggest, bloodiest, and maybe the most significant battle ever fought on this continent.

It's interesting because it's one of the only significant defeats of Robert E. Lee, the greatest battlefield commander in U.S. history. Before the war, he was recognized as the finest soldier of his day, and when the South seceded in 1861, he was offered command of both the Union and Confederate armies. As a Virginia native, he went with his home state and the Confederacy. Lee won one smashing victory after another against a Union army 2-3 times bigger in manpower and vastly better equipped.

After possibly his greatest victory, in the Battle of Chancellorsville, he decided to invade the North. He crossed through Maryland into Pennsylvania in late June, 1863. The two armies stumbled on each other at the crossroads town of Gettysburg and battled for three bloody days. After coming agonizingly close to victory on each of the first two days, Lee ordered an all-out assault on the Union center on day 3 (July 3, 1863.) He was decisively defeated, and retreated back to Virginia. The war went on for almost two more years, but Lee's Army of Northern Virginia never took the offensive again.

Why is Gettysburg important? Because the defeat there was the final nail in the Southern hope that they could win independence from the North by victory on the battlefield. It's easy to forget that Lee's goal wasn't the capture of Gettysburg - it was to continue the war on Northern soil, possibly taking Harrisburg, PA (the state capital and a vital railroad hub), or even Philadelphia. After the defeat at Gettysburg, that was no longer possible. The South could still have won the war if the North had tired of the fighting (which was still a very real possibility until Sherman's capture of Atlanta in July, 1864), but Southern independence through victory on the battlefield was no longer a realistic possibility after Gettysburg.

Here's a passage from William Faulkner's "Intruder in the Dust"
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....
So it was a turning point in history. And it happened here in Pennsylvania, in the beautiful rolling hills surrounding a little crossroads country town, 150 years ago today. That's worth remembering.


  1. Excellent Post! Thanks for joining in.

    A couple of thoughts:

    * Yes, Virginia has been woeful at preserving battlefields - I think Chancelorsville and Wilderness are Walmart Parking lots now. :(
    Though much smaller Shiloh is a wonderfully preserved battlefield.
    * Faulkner mentions Garnett, I've always found him such a tragic hero. He rode his horse into Pickett's Charge a sure death sentence. But he did so to return his name to honor after Stonewall Jackson had questioned his bravery at Kernstown in the Valley Campaign.
    * The topography of Gettysburg is what inspires awe in anyone who visits.
    * I think foreigners are always attracted to Gettysburg because of their fascination to America and the Civil War is our Iliad and Odyssey.

    Again, thanks for joining in.

  2. I'm sorry I missed the e-mail on a civil war theme. I should have known better.

    When I lived in Washington DC I made the trip out to Gettysburg and wept. It was a beautiful fall day with colors that were custom ordered for post cards and travel ads. It was cool and crisp and as I read the history and imagined the day the vast tragedy of war came over me for the first time. I had thought much about in the years prior to that moment, but knowing that every where I walked carnage lay around me. 1/3 of the armies, 1 of every three sons, husbands, friend, and fathers died that day. It does not matter if you were Blue or Gray, it was such overwhelming destruction that I could not escape it.

    i want my children to go some day, to know what was sacrificed on their behalf. to honor the men who fought and the women who loved and lost them.

  3. We should meet up sometime. I am east coast for the time being (military, so get around, haha). This summer I'm all over the west coast, but when I come back, I love to visit battlegrounds and historical sites. However, I'm the only one I know of out there that likes to do so. Company is always better.
    Virginia is awesome, and one of the few places my kids liked (only the interactive Jamestown, however). I've never been to Gettysburg, but really want to.

  4. Hi, Max... a wonderful post!!

    I LOVE the topic of the Civil War... reasons, causes, etc., in my opinion, over the decades and time have been reduced to 'talking points' instead of 'real reasons.' Something as significant as this event had to have had a series of complicated issues involved...

    As you pointed out, Lee had a storied career with the U.S. Army when war was threatening... and did not see the advantage of conflict occurring. When asked by Lincoln several times to lead the Union forces, Lee's answers were always predicated on whether or not Virginia would secede... had Virginia not seceded, Lee would be remembered in history as a great commander from the standpoint of the Union Army.

    Lee, as many of the officers of the Confederacy, refused to take up arms against their home states.

    The battlefields at Vicksburg are amazing. When I was last there back in May, I noticed things that I had NEVER realized before... and that was because the park service had decided to remove 150 years worth of trees and take it back to its appearance at the time of the fighting and siege.

    I had relatives on both sides of the conflict... and understand them all quite well. I honor them all.


  5. I learned things today. Things I did not expect to learn here! And not just about this battle, this war, this place... but about you! Such a wonderful read! This took a lot of work and I appreciate it! Happy 4th!