Monday, July 1, 2013
Looking At Gettysburg 150 Years On
When I was a child and first got into history, the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place 150 years ago today, really put its hooks in me. There was a book on the topic that I checked out from the library several times that recreated the battle through the use miniatures, which I studied like the Torah. The following summer after reading that book, my family took a road trip from our Nebraska home to Washington DC, and we stopped and spent a day at Gettysburg along the way. There was possibly nothing that could have made 11 year old me any happier, apart from completing the series of Topps 1987 baseball cades I was furiously collecting at the time.
At the time, my understanding of battle contained nary a trace of politics or the realities of war. I thought it was really cool and dramatic, and in the end the good guys won after being pushed to the limit. A clue that the Civil War was more than a series of interesting events came later on the trip when my family was riding the Metro into DC from our suburban hotel. My sister and I had bought souvenir Union soldier caps in Gettysburg, and she was wearing hers. Some man on the train looked at her and said, "honey don't you know this is a Confederate state." My father, needless to say, was livid, and I was confused. Who on earth could possibly still be against the Union? Weren't they fighting to defeat slavery and reunite the country?
That moment has stuck with me for twenty-six years now, and may well have been the first seed planted in my interest in historical memory. I thought of that moment a lot when I read David Blight's superlative Race and Reunion, which explained how the narratives in my children's Civil War books came to be. These books rarely, if ever, discussed slavery or African American soldiers. My most-read Civil War book did not end with Reconstruction, but with Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston attending the funeral of his old rival, William Tecumseh Sherman. In this telling, the war was an unfortunate conflict among brothers who quickly reconciled.
That narrative came out of strong impulses after Reconstruction to bury the reality of the Civil War's political nature. Whites in the North and South were able to unite over their mutual hatred of blacks and support for white supremacy. Each side was "honorable," and the role of African Americans erased. The capstone, according to Blight, came in 1913, when president Woodrow Wilson traveled to Gettysburg for a 50th anniversary celebration that was racially exclusive and which emphasized the common American identity of the North and South.
Years further study taught me that the offhand comment made to my sister in the DC Metro got to the heart of the matter much more than any of my children's history books. The Civil War was not just a series of battles and generals. It was a contested revolution, and certainly not a "tragedy" or a conflict of "brother against brother" for the slaves who used it as an opportunity to seize their freedom. It was not the romance I saw with my eleven-year old eyes, either. About 2% of the entire American population perished in that war, most of them dying from disease rather than by falling valorously on the battlefield. Prisoners of war starved, black soldiers in the Battle of the Crater and at Fort Pillow were the victims of the kind of war crimes prosecuted at Nuremberg, and the first blood of the war was not shed at Fort Sumter, but in the streets of Baltimore between Union troops and a pro-Confederate mob. With that knowledge, I wonder, 150 years after the event, how we should view the Battle of Gettysburg today.
Gettysburg is the most important turning point in the Civil War. As hard as so many books and films try to do, the battle cannot be understood outside of its broader context. The battle was not some kind of opera, or a duel between honorable generals who were friends in peace, as the 1993 film Gettysburg would have it. It was a horrific bloody slog that was the culmination of a failed invasion that threatened to bring about a Southern victory. When Lee invaded North in 1863, he was taking the initiative after a string of victories ending with the Confederate triumph at Chancellorsville. With the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect, Lincoln signaled that his cause was not just to reunify the Union, but to dramatically alter it by destroying the institution of slavery. Many Northern whites were appalled at this turn of events, including a number of Union soldiers who refused to continue fighting. The mobs that would riot over the draft in New York City and "Copperhead" politicians like Clement Vallandigham were outraged that whites should fight and die for the freedom of blacks. George McClellan, the former leader of the Army of the Potomac, had staunchly opposed emancipation, and even openly discussed leading a military coup before Lincoln dismissed him for the last time.
In the midst of the setbacks and strife, Lee invaded the North. A successful invasion could very well have brought an end to the war on Southern terms. The meaning of such a victory was pretty apparent in the behavior of Confederate troops in Pennsylvania: they kidnapped local African Americans and forced them into slavery. By contrast, Union camps in the South drew in thousands of slaves seeking freedom, and many freedmen would go on to wear the Union uniform themselves and wreak vengeance upon the South. Make no mistake, this was a war of clashing political ideologies, one intending to perpetuate slavery, the other to destroy it. Gettysburg would determine whether the cause of emancipation could survive or not.
The battle itself, like most Civil War engagements, was a lot less romantic and dramatic than it has been portrayed. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's creative counterattack with the 20th Maine on Little Round Top was probably much less important than it has been made out to be. Pickett's Charge was not some kind of valiant gesture, but a stupid, prideful mistake by Lee that led to a large portion of his army being slaughtered like livestock. As in all wars, common soldiers died for the mistakes of their superiors. Everyone still talks about Chamberlain, but nobody really remembers General Dan Sickles' decision to move his men into an exposed position in the Peach Orchard where they were decimated all for the stupidity of their commanding officer. War and battles are the last thing that ought to be romanticized.
As we all know, the Union scored a big victory at Gettysburg on July 3rd, 1863, and another one then next day when Vicksburg fell. In lofty hindsight it was the turning point in the war, although Union troops from this very battlefield had to be sent to New York City to quell violent rioting a few days later. On July 4th, 1863, the end of the conflict was still in doubt. I still think that the ultimate summation of the meaning of what happened came in November of that year, when Lincoln gave his famous address. It is a great misfortune that his words have been calcified and turned into fodder for memorization by school children. We have lost the meaning of his words, which are quite profound.
Just imagine the scene. Lincoln is giving his address at a cemetery, surrounded by the dead of a war he pushed to prosecute, a decision that must have weighed heavy on his soul. That war was still raging, with no end in sight. He had to make meaning of the sacrifice of the dead buried around him, both for himself and for his audience so that "these dead shall not have died in vain." Lincoln tells his audience that the war is a war for a "new birth of freedom" and a crusade for democracy. It is not a conflict to reunify the nation, but to forge a newer, better, and freer nation. If the Confederate forces had been victorious at Gettysburg, a very different vision would have reigned. That, dear friends, is how we ought to view the meaning of the Battle of Gettysburg today.