From John Hennessy:
On this the anniversary of Gettysburg, I hope you’ll pardon a departure from our normal Fredericksburg-centric fare.
I wish I could say that Gettysburg doesn’t interest me, largely because it interests just about everyone else (I confess it irks me no end that the most popular post in this blog’s existence remains a post about a bullet found in a tree at Gettysburg). Historical revelations about the battle dwell in the deep details that, in a historical sense, often really don’t much add to our understanding of why Gettysburg matters so much to Americans. If anyplace illustrates how Americans’ traditional quest for knowledge about the Civil War trumps our desire to understand, Gettysburg is it. We know the details cold and increasingly; we understand why they matter only vaguely.
Yet, the place, the event, and the culture that surrounds Gettysburg fascinates me. I probably know (or at least knew) as much about Gettysburg as I do about anyplace other than Manassas (including our own four battlefields in Fredericksburg’s environs), but in many ways it’s knowledge put to no good use–amusement or self-reflection largely. So it is for most of us. That in itself is not a bad thing. For me, the story of Gettysburg, told by MacKinlay Kantor and American Heritage in all its human detail, spurred an interest in history that shaped my life.
Gettysburg is America’s simplistic case-study in civil war: the place where all that Americans feared or hoped for was realized or dashed amid a tumult of human struggle. On no event in our history have we imposed more than on Gettysburg. It is the Confederacy’s “high tide.” It alone is America’s “new” birthplace of freedom.
On the ground, no event seems more pregnant with possibilities than Gettysburg. Faulkner’s “every Southern boy” lives perpetually on the cusp of Pickett’s charge. Generations have reveled in the rumination, “if only Jackson had been at Cemetery Hill as the sun set on July 1….” William C. Oates and Joshua Chamberlain battled for nothing less than the fate of the Republic on the slopes of Little Round Top on July 2.
Americans thrive in the world of the possible but unprovable–the world just beyond truth, just beyond our reach. We cannot resist filling that intellectual and emotional space with high drama. Might-have-beens enthrall us, spur us to imagine. No single place in America has been the subject of such vivid imaginings as Gettysburg.
That we imagine so fervently at Gettysburg suggests to me that we pay far too little attention to the rest of the war, for the rest of the war gives us plenty with which to quell fantastic speculation. What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg? Jackson was at Chancellorsville and engineered a stunningly successful demolition of the Union flank–an attack that achieved all that might have been hoped. The result: a won battle, unchanged war.
What if William C. Oates had vanquished Joshua Chamberlain and took Little Round Top? The Confederate army had been there before too: Longstreet overwhelmed the Union flank at Second Manassas on a far greater scale. The result: a decisive victory, but war unrelenting.
What if Lee had won at Gettysburg? Would the Union army have collapsed like a broken camp stool? Lee had won in front of Richmond, at Manassas, at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. None of those Union armies had collapsed. It seems to me that the Union army’s presence on Northern soil makes it even less likely it might have done so in July 1863.
Our mania about Gettysburg, and Gettysburg alone, compels us to see it as a petri-dish of immense and immediate possibilities rather than as part of a grinding, consumptive war that by 1863 was little affected by the outcome of a single battle.
Having said all that, there is no denying Gettysburg’s singular place in American culture and in the lives of most Americans who have an interest in the Civil War.
Gettysburg is the biggest. We love big.
Gettysburg is the place where Lincoln chose to connect the sacrifice and purpose of war. His was a speech about the war at large, and could have been given appropriately at a dozen places. But he chose Gettysburg (not only was it the war’s deadliest battle, but also, in 1863, its most accessible battlefield), and so Gettysburg is seen by many through the lens of Lincoln’s address. Other places, like Antietam and even Fredericksburg or Fort Monroe, may lay claim to a more immediate and intrinsic connection between freedom, Union, and war. But Lincoln chose Gettysburg, and so do we.
But there is something else, something both important to the war and Gettysburg’s place in American culture. The significance of Gettysburg is rooted less in possibilities for the Confederacy than in the reality for the Union Army of the Potomac. The Union army that marched to Gettysburg had an emerging identity rooted not in its leaders, but in itself, forged not of success, but of hardship waiting to be justified.
Everyone blows about this army: “If the army of the Potomac would only do so and so, then everything will go all right,” they say, when at the same time there isn’t a department in the service that has done as much hard, forced marching or fought so many or such desperate battles. True, yes, too true, we have not been victorious, but the fault is not in the troops, for never have men been known to fight as this army has fought, even when we were outgeneraled and defeated. Any man will fight when flushed with former victories, but it is only this shattered army that will face the enemy though defeat be certain.
Staff officer Stephen Minot Weld also mused on the durability and identity of the army:
This Army is a truly wonderful army. They have something of the English bull-dog in them. You can whip them time and again, but the next fight they go into, they are in good spirits….They are used to being whipped, and no longer mind it. Some day or other we shall have our turn.
That “turn” came at Gettysburg.
That the process of memorializing Gettysburg started within months (men of the First Corps commenced in the fall of 1863 an effort to erect a monument to Reynolds on the first day’s field) hints at Gettysburg’s unique place in the army’s memory. After Appomattox, as the war generation came to dominate America, the men of the army itself ensured that its service would be enshrined forever at Gettysburg, the place where, in the soldiers’ eyes, the army’s identity was confirmed and its toil and sacrifice justified. The backdrop for Gettysburg’s prominence in the army’s memory was all the futile struggle that preceded it and the anonymous, grinding toil that followed. It was the army’s lone unambiguous victory with profile. Gettysburg may have been one of many turning points in the war, but it was THE turning point in the emerging identity of the Army of the Potomac.
Lincoln’s words and the supreme importance of the Union army’s victory to the army renders Gettysburg a worthy touchstone for the American Civil War–much like the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Pearl Harbor, the Somme, and Dealey Plaza. But perhaps the nation has conflated (or confused) the army’s turning point and the war’s turning point. And perhaps Jubal Early and the Lost Cause machine, facing a rare Union narrative based on outright and obvious triumph, successfully migrated the conversation about Gettysburg to the “might-have-beens” that Faulkner’s “every Southern boy” has clung to ever since, with all the possibilities intact–imaginings that linger still (but really ought not to) just beyond history’s reach.