Gettysburg: Confederate imaginings, American realities, and the Army of the Potomac

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.

July 1, 2013--the march to McPherson's Ridge attended by hundreds.

July 1, 2013–the march to McPherson’s Ridge attended by hundreds. NPS photo.

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–it’s 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 it 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.

union-troops-after-fredericksburgDuring the march to Gettysburg,  James Woodworth of the 44th New York wrote both complainingly and determinedly,

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.

The illumination of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, June 30, 2013. NPS photo.

The illumination of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, June 30, 2013. NPS photo.

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.

11 thoughts on “Gettysburg: Confederate imaginings, American realities, and the Army of the Potomac

  1. Very nice post John. I made the march carrying the National color of the 19th Indiana and was simply amazed at the crowd that follow us. And afterwords the number of people, many of them descendants who want to see or touch or be photographed with the flags was amazing, touching and to me a very real bridge back to 1863.

  2. John — you bring an interesting and unique set of comments about Gettysburg, especially putting the big action into context to the Eastern Theater. Very well stated. I could hear your voice as I read this blog. Thanks for sharing; you are truly a National asset in bringing to life the Civil War in many ways to life for all.

  3. Pingback: The Many Meanings of Gettysburg are Based on Infirm Foundations | Exploring the Past

  4. John: Thanks for your post. Some members of my family, myself included, made it up there for the 150th. Though pixilated, I am somewhere back in that long line that followed the Iron Brigade. The value of spending 4 days reviewing the battle as it unfolded was immense. Similar to what you and your team have done with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and will, I imagine for Wilderness and Spottsylvania Courthouse, walking the actual ground with knowledgeable persons leading, helps greatly with the understanding of what both of the armies did at those places. The sacrifices made were what the continuation of our nation is built upon. While shorter day excursions help gain some understanding, but it really takes spending the time. The luminaria on the night of the 30th was moving. The walks on the succeeding 3 days was meaningful.

  5. Hello i know this is probably the long winded way round to contacting the host…but i was wondering if anyone know on how to get in contact with the owner of Sherwood Forest crumbling slave cabin…theres a post on this website from june 2010.

  6. The best explanation of why Gettysburg matters I have read. 1863 was indeed the year the Army of the Potomac became more than the sum of its component parts.

    If Gettysburg was the turning point it is so often proclaimed to be, then what context do we put the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor in? The Army of Northern Virginia may have been defeated by the Union draft, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the freeing of troops in the West for service east after Vicksburg but it was most assuredly not made irreparable by Gettysburg.

  7. I’m admittedly among the Gettysburg nuts, although living in Ohio over six hours away by car, I can’t visit my cathedral as often as I would like. I’ve read probably 15-20 books about the battle, about the same number as I’ve read about the entire Civil War.

    I’m always fascinated by stories about the civilians who lived there in 1863, and have picked up many great vignettes on blogs. “Days of Uncertainty and Dread” by Gerald Bennett is quite good. Too bad it looks like he self-edited his work, or had a very poor copy and proof editor. He also injects his own views, some a bit syrupy. Good read though.

    My favorite response to the question of Gettysburg as “the” turning point of the war was given by Prof. Alan Guelzo (sp?) of Gettysburg College. He says that when asked that, he always states that, in his view, Appomattox Court House was “the” turning point of the Civil War!

  8. This is such a timely, excellent article, that as a person preparing my third Gettysburg trip in a year, it really resonates with me. In contemplating my own pre-occupation with Gettysburg, I realized that an important aspect of visiting the battlefield had crept up on me quite unexpectedly: Camaraderie. For almost all of my adult life, travel and study has been strictly a solo endeavor: the plane lands, the taxi arrives, and off to my hotel cell I go. Bus trips, tour guides, leading, following – all the while, standing a bit from the crowd, I found myself at odds with the synergy swirling about me. Gettysburg changed everything about the way I travel and study: I signed on to tour with people I had become acquainted with beforehand, we had a common interest, and we were going to a destination that held a cast of characters almost as real as each other. Gettysburg has become to me, as much about the people I pal with as the place we study. A trip begins with a hug and a car ride with Frums at the airport, and it ends with a solemn drop-off from best buddy, cash. In-between, it is exhausting excursions, searches for box turtles, and reenacting Buford at the Cupola (done in an Australian accent by Peter from Oz). At night, the locals go home, the tourists take in one last snack, chat, and eagerly plan to do it all over again the next day. It is this bond that has eluded me most of my life: The exquisite combination of intellectual stimulation, recreation, & friendship. Looking forward, I gladly give up the trips to Italy, which were always a mixed bag of eye candy and wistfulness.
    PS I cannot pass on the opportunity to mention that there Is a strong connection between Gettysburg & Hockey, too. Next year at CWI2018!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s