Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Gettysburg still echoes after 150 years

One hundred fifty years ago tonight, the largest battle ever fought on American soil was marching toward its bloody, tragic and, ultimately, fortunate end. The crossroads of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was the unwilling host of this three-day battle and remains the most-visited Civil War site in the nation.

I have visited Gettysburg twice, but I'm ready to go again if the opportunity arises. My first visit was on a rainy Saturday about 40 years ago. My parents and sister had come up to our Alexandria, Virginia, home for a visit, and we drove to Gettysburg from there on a misty, intermittently rainy Saturday. My wife and I went to Gettysburg about 10 years ago, spending the entire day driving and walking over the battlefield and having to leave before we had quenched our thirst for this critical battle of the war that tore America apart. If you can't visit, I suggest a look at the Civil War Trust's Gettysburg website or the many volumes of histories and myriad documentaries of the battle that killed or wounded around 40,000 Americans. The Diane Rhem Show featured a panel discussion of the battle today.

The battle was the so-called "high-water mark" of the Confederacy, but the out-manned Confederate army lost each of the day's fights. Nevertheless, the battle could easily have gone the other way. If Ewell had acted promptly and pushed the Union troops off the high ground on July 1, if Union soldiers had not held the line on Little Round Top on July 2, or if Longstreet had moved more quickly and decisively on July 3, the outcome could have been different. Or if Robert E. Lee had been more specific and less trusting of his lieutenants throughout the battle, the South might have pushed Meade and his troops off the gently rolling Pennsylvania hills and might have frightened the Northern electorate into an armistice, status quo antebellum. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has written with William R. Forstchen a convincing and readable alternative history ("Gettysburg") based on the idea that Lee might have taken Longstreet's advice and dug in the weary Confederates on defensible ground between Gettysburg and Washington, forcing Meade's hand. The United States came close to being divided; the victory at Gettysburg (my great-great grandfather fought there for the losing side) turned the tide of the war, along with the conquest that same week of Vicksburg, Miss., and put an end to the scourge of slavery.

As the Diane Rhem Show segment pointed out, slavery really was at the heart of the Civil War. But it was not the only cause of the war, and it was not the primary motivation for many soldiers North and South. My ancestor, a Mexican War veteran, was a poor farm laborer who owned no slaves and no real estate. He had no coin in the game being played by wealthy planters wanting to preserve their wealth and their way of life. But he, and many others like him, fought bravely and gave their lives (he gave his at Third Winchester in 1864) for a cause that was beyond slavery. State sovereignty might have been too big a term for their uneducated minds, but they could understand that their homes were being threatened and their friends were being killed.

As Civil War history is being constantly rewritten, Tony Horwitz points out that new scholarship suggests that war might have been avoided altogether. With greater wisdom, less bravado and more diplomacy and caution on both sides, the war might have been avoided. The Union's expenditures on the war would have been enough to buy and free all of the South's slaves and provide those freed slaves with land and capital to start new lives — all without the loss of more than half a million lives and the destruction of homes, public buildings and farms.

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