Thursday, July 3, 2008

Why Gettysburg Still And Always Matters

The battlefield charge is a unique moment in military history; often tragic and bloody, these times when brave men rush into the face of enemy guns quickly become the stuff of myth and legend (the Charge of the Light Brigade, Henry V's "once more into the breach, dear friends) There is a long list of famous battlefield charges in military history, and 145 years ago, the American contribution was made on the field between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg.
After eyeing each other across No Man's Land all morning, and hunkering under a multi-hundred gun artillery barrage that could be heard for miles in every direction, the two armies again came to grips in a desperate and doomed assault forever known as Pickett's Charge.
After a day of tremendous victory, followed by a day of frustrated assaults on both Union flanks, General Robert E. Lee was anxious to thrust a large force against the Union center on the third day of fighting in an attempt to break their lines and drive the Army of the Potomac from the field. This massive task fell to three division from the Confederate I Corps and III Corps, none more famous than that of General George Pickett.
The task of these roughly 12,500 men was a tall one, as they would have to cross 3/4 of mile of open field, taking front and flank fire the whole way, then charge right into the muzzles of the Union troops at the center of the line, troops that were ready and waiting.
The Union commander, General George Meade, had been especially prescient the night before and, at the conclusion of a council of war on the night of July 2, he took Gen. John Gibbon aside. Gibbon's forces would be defending the central portion of the Union line the next morning, and Meade told him that his troops should make ready, as they would bear the brunt of the next day's Confederate assault. Low stone walls were fashioned, rifles were loaded and stacked in easy reach, and artillery was brought forward.
To Lee, this assault seemed the grand culmination of this tremendous battle, but to General James Longstreet, his chief advisor, it was clearly a disaster in the making. Lee would have none of it; however, and the assault went off as planned.
And, as expected, was crushed under the weight of Union metal and courage.
Of the roughly 12,500 men who rushed Cemetery Ridge, more than 50% were either killed, wounded, or captured in less than one hour of fighting. The attack did punch through the Union line in two places, most famously near the Copse of Trees, but both breaches were quickly sealed by reinforcements (including a regiment near and dear to my heart, the 20th Massachusetts).
As the Confederates straggled back to their lines, it was clear that a tremendous victory had been won by the Army of the Potomac, and Lee, desperate to rally his soldiers, was heard to tell several that "this was all my fault". When Lee came to General Pickett, who had survived the charge by hunkering down at the Codori Farm away from the frontline, and asked him to rally his division, Pickett reportedly replied "General Lee, I have no division."
The two armies would again stare at each other across a bloody field for more than a day. Then, on the 5th of July, 1863, General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would retire the field and begin the long retreat back to Virginia.
For the Union army and the North, this was a huge victory, made even greater by the capture of Vicksburg by Union forces under General Ulysses Grant on the 4th of July. These two victories were monumental boosts to the North and equally shattering blows to the Confederacy.
In the final accounting, there were somewhere between 45-51,000 casualties in the three days of fighting at Gettysburg. This was a fight that forever seared itself into the national consciousness and remains of particular interest of both scholars and tourists alike.
For me, there are several reasons why Gettysburg is and will likely always be of particular interest. One is the idea of Gettysburg as myth and part of our collective memory. As an adjunct to my study of 19th century America as part of my history degree at UCLA, I also studied ancient Greek history, and there is a wonderful connection between the two through this battle.
Another reason is that this is the only battlefield I've visited, walked, and sifted between my fingers. It's one thing to read about a battle, it's something altogether different to stare at the landmarks and walk the ground. Poignant and heartwrenching hardly begin to describe it.
In my course of study at UCLA, I worked with an amazing professor, Dr. Joan Waugh, who taught 5 of my classes. As a senior, I was in a seminar called "The Soldier's Experience in the Civil War" and as a final project, each student was to study a certain regiment. I adopted the 20th Massachusetts, and several months and many tens of pages later, I had drafted my paper. This regiment, known as the Harvard Regiment, stood its ground during Pickett's Charge and helped win the day. There is an amazing monument to the Harvard Regiment on Cemetery Ridge just south of the Copse of Trees, and to stand there on a warm day and think about the men I had studied; what they believed, why they fought, how they suffered and died brought tears to my eyes.
The final reason is that The Jess came with me on that trip. We had only been dating for a few months, and the trip had been planned even before we met. I asked her if she wanted to come with, not sure what response to expect. Not only did she book a ticket, but she started pulling books off my shelves and reading about the battle in preparation. There are few people who know as much about General John Reynolds as my wife, and we had an amazing time sharing the experience together. I was blown away by her shared enthusiasm for something I was so passionate about.
Best of all, I realized during our trip to Gettysburg that I was in love with her.

No comments: