'This Time': America's Great National Tragedy, Gettysburg Edition
A hundred and fifty years ago this week occurred the Battle of Gettysburg. Millions of trees have been turned to paper, and the Great Lakes' worth of ink has been consumed concerning this battle. The strategy and tactics are passionately argued to this day. West Pointers visit the battlefield annually to learn how to use ground.
During his first term of enlistment in the U.S. Air Force, this writer read almost everything he could find about the Civil War. It was a Romantic war, fought during the Romantic era. Though the knights did not wear shining armor, they were still noble. General Lee especially seemed to be the perfect soldier: handsome, daring, religious, and successful...well, at least until Gettysburg. Even his faithful horse Traveler was brave. "Though we should have never fought it," wrote the incomparable Shelby Foote, "because we are Americans it became the greatest war ever fought and our generals were the greatest generals who ever lived." These were his sentiments at age 25 or so.
Our family first visited Gettysburg in July 1995, shortly before the Air Force deployed me to Croatia as a U.N. peacekeeper for four months to serve in a very different war. While my young boys climbed upon an old cannon, I stood at perhaps the most famous scene of the entire war, behind the Stone Wall near The Angle, with a large tree to my left. Ahead of me was the field where General George Pickett's and two others divisions marched about one mile into history and eternity in "Pickett's Charge."
For about five minutes I stood mostly alone. Every word I had ever read about this "forlorn hope" of a battle flooded my mind. I could see the blue uniforms of the Union troops waiting behind the wall with rifles in hand and hear the horse-mounted officers shout, "Hold your fire!" The 15,000 or so gray-clad Confederate soldiers marched in perfect alignment, with flags flying proudly in the hot breeze as if to the command, "Pass in review!" I also knew that when it was all over a couple of hours later, fully two thirds of those 15,000 men would be dead, wounded, or captured. I could hear the taunts of the Union soldiers -- "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" -- Fredericksburg being where, the previous December, Union troops had attacked the Confederates eleven times under similar conditions, only in wintertime. History records Pickett's Charge as the last "Napoleonic" charge ever fought. Robert E. Lee never won another major action. A great commander of another era stated it perfectly: "They came at us in the same old way, and we defeated them in the same old way" (Wellington at Waterloo, 1815).
I could come to only one conclusion. Turning to my right and left and then speaking to no one in particular, I exclaimed, "General Lee, you were crazy!" Until Gettysburg, Lee demanded the impossible of his Army of Northern Virginia and got it, but this time they failed to carry the day. A monument stands near this spot, "The High Water Mark of the Confederacy." And so it was.
Perhaps the great William Faulkner summarized best the romanticized Battle of Gettysburg:
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 ... 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 gold dome of Washington itself. (William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust)
Lost in all this romance were the reasons 180,000 or so Americans fought each other to the death among the fields, rocks, and hills of Pennsylvania. Did they fight for states' rights or for the preservation of the Union? Did they fight to free the slaves or to defend their state or region? Did they fight because of chivalry, an old-fashioned sense of duty, or "Because you are here"? No one really knows.
The Civil War changed America for better and for worse. The America of George Washington, the framers of the Constitution, Andrew Jackson, and Alexis de Tocqueville became the America of Manifest Destiny "from sea to shining sea," the robber barons, Jim Crow laws and the Klan, two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. Shortly after the Civil War, Congress passed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments that legally freed the slaves and gave them the franchise. One hundred years later, it took the efforts of another martyred leader, Martin Luther King, to establish firmly the equality of the races.
It would be good if you, dear reader, would visit a Civil War site this summer, if you can afford the gasoline. This summer, though, instead of a battlefield, we may well visit the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati.
James Franklin is a pastor residing near Lafayette, Indiana and a retired U.S. Air Force technical sergeant.