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The Meaning of Gettysburg

Last week, the issue of race resurfaced through the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action. And the past year and a half has made us all aware of terrorism and homeland security. But if you think that things are tense now, you should have been around in 1863.

Seven score ago (that’s 140 years) this week, the United States found itself with a “severe” homeland security problem. Terrorism was a daily reality. Race relations were on edge.

The occasion was the Civil War, the central act in this nation’s drama, and from July 1-3, 1863, Union and Confederate armies found themselves slugging it out in a small town in western Pennsylvania. Before the war, the town was a simple pastoral town; after three days of battle-the deadliest of the war-the town would be forever be associated with the horrific battle that was waged there-the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the most bloody battle of the war (51,000 casualties) and it would deal the Confederacy (and its cause) its most fatal blow.

Coming off a string of successes down South, a confident Robert E. Lee decided to bring the war up North for the second time (his first attempt at Antietam had resulted largely in a draw). Although he was winning battles with legendary maneuvering and bravery, each clash came at a great cost, as they consistently lost a greater proportion of their troops than the North. Second, there was a Presidential election coming up in a year, and if Lee could prove to wavering Northerners just how bloody and unbearable this war was (and would continue to be– without a quick resolution), perhaps they’d kick that bum Lincoln out of office, elect a peace candidate, and end the shenanigans for once and for all. An offensive victory might also secure European support for the Confederate cause, or at least prevent them from siding with the Yanks. Lastly, Ulysses S. Grant was applying great force out West on the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg. If Vicksburg fell, so, too, would control of the Mississippi River fall into Union hands, and, subsequently, the landscape of the war would be forever altered in the North’s favor. An invasion into the North might take some of the pressure off Vicksburg.

So, in June of 1863, Robert E. Lee left his wife and kids and led 75,000 Confederate troops (his largest force since the beginning of the war) above the Mason-Dixon line and into Northern territory, hoping to deliver a final blow to the Federals.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Lee knew that he was risking everything by invading the North with such a large force. His last venture into Union territory gave him little reason to think that he would have any success this time around, and yet he realized that all of the South’s hopes hinged on this battle. One Confederate soldier remarked: “The army will never do such fighting as it will now.” For the North, the fall of Gettysburg could have quite possibly given the South easy access to DC and perhaps brought about the war’s conclusion and a Confederate victory. Additionally, Lincoln had just issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of that year, forever altering the war’s cause; a major loss on his home turf would make Northerner’s question the worth of this conflict.

Besides his wife and kids, however, Lee also seemed to have left his luck in Virginia. Immediately things did not go well for Lee. He had no clue of the Union army’s location or size, since the man sent out to find out this information-Confederate Cavalry Officer Jeb Stuart-was unable to get around the advancing Union army fast enough in order to return to his boss with what would be very bad news (the Union army was 90,000 strong and advancing). When the Union and Confederate armies finally bumped into each other on July 1st, the Confederates performed remarkably well, forcing the Federals to retreat through the town of Gettysburg. By winning the day, however, the South had sealed its fate for the entire battle, since their successful aggression on Day One pushed the Union up onto the advantageous heights at Cemetery Ridge. Sometimes, the best things happen to those who wait.

Proving that even 19th century men had problems listening, the Confederacy was having a difficult time heeding each other’s advice. At the end of Day One, Lee asked Lieutenant General Richard Ewell to grab the vacant Cemetery Hill in order to prevent the north from strengthening their position on the hills. Because Lee was a cordial, gentile man, he ended his declarative sentence with the polite remark “if practicable,” which was simply a General’s nice way of saying “do it now.” It’s akin to a parent telling their child to take out the trash, “if you wouldn’t mind.” You got the hint and, no, you didn’t mind. Ewell, however, took the advice too literally and decided that, in fact, seizing the hills that evening was not “practicable,” and, as a result, the Northern army spent the night fortifying their stronghold on the hills.

Ewell wasn’t the only one failing to heed good advice. Lee, himself, failed to listen to the wise counsel coming from his “right arm,” General James Longstreet. On July 2nd, Longstreet warned against Lee’s plan to attack the Union flanks, noting that the Confederacy would be fighting uphill and against what appeared to be great numbers (Stuart still hadn’t returned from his intelligence mission so they were still operating in the dark). Longstreet pleaded: “There never was a body of fifteen thousand men who could make that attack successfully.” Proving that he had lost the creativity that had served him so well down South, Lee responded: “The enemy is there General Longstreet, and I am going to strike him.” So much for imagination.

On Little Round Top-the extreme left flank of the Union army-the Union’s strategic position was almost single-handedly preserved by 300 troops from Maine who were short on ammo, experienced, and time. They were lead by an English professor from Bowdoin College-Joshua Chamberlain-who had no professional military experience. With only ten minutes to prepare, the 20th Maine fought off countless Confederate assaults. Shortly before what would be the final Confederate assault, the Union army quickly realized that they were out of ammo, and Chamberlain ordered what can only be described as a desperate suicide mission: a bayonet charge down the hill. Miraculously, it worked and the Union line held and Chamberlain received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery. I’ve taught English before, and were I to face a charging force of screaming Rebs, I would have ditched my bayonet, grabbed my Whitman, and booked it out of there.

The Battle of Gettysburg may be most infamously known for the events of Day 3, when Lee (going against the advice of his generals once more), launched the bulk of his army on an enormous frontal assault on the Union center which he thought had been weakened by the previous day’s flank assaults. He was wrong. Perhaps Lee’s poor judgments were caused by the dysentery he was rumored to have had. If only his decisions were as loose and flexible as his, well, you get the picture. Pickett’s Charge, as it would come to be called, was largely a death march and it resulted in devastating losses for the South. When it was all over, the traditionally stalwart and proud Lee broke down, profusely apologizing to his troops and generals, saying “It was all my fault” and even dramatically offering his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the weeks ahead. The next day, July 4th, a disgraced, depressed, and defeated Lee packed up his things and went down south. On the same day, out west, Vicksburg fell to the Union army and the war would never be the same. It’s hard to imagine a better July

Although the war raged on for almost two more years after the battle of Gettysburg, the Confederacy would never be able to fight with the same power and spirit that they had on those hot summer days in Pennsylvania. The North’s size, industry, and diplomatic advantages would prove to be too much for the South to handle in the long run. Indeed, Gettysburg proved to be a microcosm of the war itself: unparalleled fearlessness, initial success, and ultimate failure.

One can’t escape the thought, however, that Gettysburg ranks high in the folklore of history not entirely because of those three bloody days, but rather because the President of the United States found the occasion significant that he made a personal visit to the battlefield four months later to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Why hasn’t Bush visited Tikrit yet with similar intentions? Or Tora Bora? With a brief, but beautiful, eulogy, Lincoln proved that, with Presidential addresses, it’s quality, not quantity, a lesson that has yet to be learned by Lincoln’s successors.

Near the conclusion of his speech, Lincoln remarked, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” Who was he kidding? 140 years later, it’s almost impossible to forget.

PATRICK W. GAVIN is a history professor. He can be reached at: pgavin@pds.org.

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