Skip to comments.Gettysburg at 150: The Show's Over, The Ghosts Remain
Posted on 07/12/2013 1:19:19 PM PDT by Kaslin
Muffle the drums, furl the flags. The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the great battle is concluded, this year's faux battle lost and won, the hurly-burly done. The crowds and tumult are gone, and once again the grass is allowed to grow in peace. I am the grass; I cover all ... Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: What place is this? Where are we now? I am the grass. Let me work. This place is outside a small town in southern Pennsylvania just north of the Maryland line where two ridges parallel and Robert E. Lee determined to fight the decisive battle of The War. He did. It was.
Here the rock from which we are hewn -- The War that made us what we are, north and south -- came to its climax. The Union would never be the old Union again. For here there was a new birth of freedom, with all the travail and cries and blood of the first.
And here the Old South died, with its old grace and its old pretensions and its old curse that the Founders dared not even name in their -- and still our -- Constitution, as if even calling slavery what it was would also call down the old curse on the whole American venture. Their circumspection in framing the new republic's fundamental law was an unspoken recognition of how shameful the Peculiar Institution was; they dared not even call it by its right name.
Slaves would be referred to only obliquely in that founding document -- as "other persons" or persons "held to Service or Labour." Everyone understood, though not everyone dared admit, that the slaves' thralldom was at the root of this great conflict. It was their existence by the millions that was the ultimate reason why these two great armies would converge on this quiet, wooded terrain on a summer's day and turn it into a field of blood.
Now that hallowed place can fade back into the past again, its peace disturbed only by the tinny sounds of historical re-enactments and whatever detritus the tourists leave behind.
Now the grass returns, covering all. And the ghosts who never go away, though they may be obscured for a few days every July in the glare of artificial lights and an artificial battle, return to roam the places where they fought and died and made history -- Seminary and Cemetery Ridge, Devil's Den, Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard now planted with apple trees, the Wheatfield . . . .
What draws us to such places? The same thing that attracts pilgrims to a shrine -- this place was holy even if those who met here in mortal combat knew it not. Today we approach it warily, reverentially, unaware that the holy is everywhere, deep within us always, wherever we go, waiting only to be summoned up. And now, 150 years later, it is summoned at the mention of a single name: Gettysburg.
Little has changed here, and too much. At least and at last we are learning not to try and prettify the place. There are to be no more manicured lawns to go with the elaborate state memorials that dot the old scenes of carnage; the National Parks Service says it will try to restore the old fields as they were in July of 1863.
A visitor from the East, the real East, the Orient, must resist the urge to slip off his shoes when he follows Pickett's Charge up the ridge -- as far as it got. For this is holy ground. When he pauses in his pilgrimage and falls still, he can still hear the Rebel Yells faintly echoing, and then they stop. Like the Old South itself. For here it, too, fell. Now all we can do is stand in awe. We cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
How strange that the decisive battle of The War should be fought at an obscure crossroads away from the two rival capitals at stake, Washington and Richmond. The historians have explained it, or tried to, ever since. But they, too, the best of them anyway, approach the topic warily, as though they know they are treading on holy ground. Why here? Why then? How explain inexorable fate with diagrams and analyses and dioramas? It is futile. We are left only to wonder, for He moves in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. But why, oh why, must they be so bloody?
Looking down from Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg as his cannoneers tore apart the massed ranks of federals below, Lee could only say, "It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it." The same could be said of the successive waves of doomed Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks as they were mowed down here in the Wheatfield like so many stalks of grain.
It is emblematic of the mythic status of one man that 150 years after his and his country's decisive defeat, Lee should still be at the center of the wonderment Gettysburg yet evokes. The central question about the battle remains not why the Union, once again our country, prevailed. But why Robert E. Lee didn't.
Who besides Civil War buffs can remember the name of the mediocrity who commanded the Union troops here? Lincoln would relieve George Meade, a perfectly competent if unaggressive general, for letting Lee escape over the Potomac with his army bloodied but still intact. Lincoln had not yet found his general in Grant, who at the same moment was finally taking Vicksburg as he would later take Richmond.
But what if Lee had heeded Longstreet's counsel and retired to a defensive position, despite his every instinct, and lay in wait? If only Jackson had still been at his side intuiting his every command even before Lee thought of it. ... If only Jeb Stuart hadn't ridden off on his private glory ride when Lee needed him most and left his commander blind, his scouts off who knows where....
In the unending recital of if-onlys and what-ifs that generations of Southern schoolboys would grow up debating, there is no sure answer for what happened at Gettysburg, no simple explanation, any more than it is simple to be an American. Let alone an American and a Southerner, grateful as one can be for being both. ("American by birth/Southern by the grace of God.")
A hundred and fifty years after he delivered his immortal address at Gettysburg, Lincoln's words still elevate and inspire. Southerners may now be grateful The War came out as it did, and we are Americans again. Our minds now tell us Old Abe was right, but our hearts, our hearts, will always belong to Bobby Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
After a century and a half, Major General George E. Pickett, he of Pickett's Charge, still has the best, most concise explanation for why Lee lost The War's decisive battle: "I always thought that the Yankees had something to do with it." Especially those boys from Maine under the command of a shy college professor (Joshua Chamberlain) who kept showing up at just the right time at just the right place in the Yankee line to thwart Marse Robert's best-laid plans.
But now it is time once again to muffle the drums and furl the flags -- till the next great anniversary -- and leave the ghosts in peace. And the grass to do its work.
He did not. Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war.
Grant was General in Chief of all US forces, though with his headquarters with the A of P.
Meade may have been only competent, but that was enough. John Reynolds might have been a better choice, but he did choose the scene of the battle and to take the high ground before he was killed, and Meade was smart enough toe send Hancock, who was brilliant, and even more ordinary men like Warren did more than their share. Still, on the second day, the South came close enough, and with a few good breaks would have won, except that the Yankees time and again filled the gaps in the nick of time. Glory enough for both sides.
Lincoln didn’t relieve Meade, Stuart wasn’t off on a private glory ride (Lee approved his plan), and Jackson, had he been there, would have smelled really, really bad, because he’d been dead for seven weeks. Aside from that, it’s a nice piece, from the Lost Cause perspective.
“...he can still hear the Rebel Yells faintly echoing, and then they stop.”
Too many factual errors ruin the entire piece.
BTW, if anyone goes and faintly hears the Rebel Yell, tell the world what it sounds like because nobody actually knows.
I disagree. Burns documentary had a clip of some rebel soldiers that gave
a rebel yell so we would know what it sounded like
“BTW, if anyone goes and faintly hears the Rebel Yell, tell the world what it sounds like because nobody actually knows.”
Actually, in the Ken Burns documentary, they show a newsreel clip taken in the 1930s of a reunion of surviving confederate and union soldiers on the gettysburg battlefield. The old gentlemen shake hands over a low stone wall. Union vets on one side of the wall, the confederates on the other. One of the confederate soldiers lifts his hat and swings it over his head while yelling “woo woo! woo woo!”. One of his fellow confederates turns his head to face the camera and says, “thats the rebel yell!”
reynolds was asked to take command of the army and declined.
After probing the flanks, and finding no give, Lee logically went to the center, unaware that the flanks had been withdrawn to the center. Result, failed attack. Had he pushed Chamberlain’s men harder at the right time, he might have won. Not a hard problem to figure out.
I was there last month. The scene is serene, standing on the “ridge” of Cemetery Hill.
This was the largest battle fought in the Western Hemisphere. I hope it stays that way.
The whole war, as usual was rooted in economics. The south counted its assets in slaves and did not want to give it up. The north was impatient, yet as time went on the economics of agricultural production would shift. Employees would become better than slaves.
What a waste of our finest men.
“One of the confederate soldiers lifts his hat and swings it over his head while yelling woo woo! woo woo!. One of his fellow confederates turns his head to face the camera and says, thats the rebel yell!”
I must have missed that piece of the documentary. I will go back and watch it, thanks!!
I remember an account of an old-timer being asked about the Rebel Yell at a reunion and the gentleman stating (paraphrase) that it could only be done correctly in large goups.
“We can’t give you much, but we’ll give you what we got left”
Very nice! I learned the Rebel Yell today.
The ghosts of the war have been seen by a re-enactor I know. His face told the truth, having that fear remembering look. On Memorial Day in Springfield, MO I would visit the National cemetery to pay my respects at one grave for 16 unknown Pennsylvania soldiers. Now that I think of it, I haven’t been to the cemetery at Gettysburg. Will have to put it on my list.
Little Round meant little. That was not the hill that matter. Cemetery hill was the hill that mattered ad by extension Culps Hill, which on July 2nd was definitely a lot longer and against more troops by George Sears Greene and his regiment. He did the same thing...like refusing the line as Chamberlain. But because he died soon after the war he didn’t get a chance to state his case as did Chamberlain long after the war was over. He died in 1903 I believe. Greene died in 1868 if I have my years correct.
aarrrgh...defended ...not definitely
If they would have gotten through, it would have mattered.
He was a McClellan man, right?
Really? I am not so sure.
I was about to post the same Sherman. It's a misconception that Grant replaced Meade as head of the Army of the Potomac. Grant replaced General Henry Halleck as general-in-chief -- i.e., the head of all the US Armies, not just the Army of the Potomac. It was the same position that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff holds today.
Meade was the commander of the Army of The Potomac until the end of the war.
If they had gotten through it is quite likely they wouldn’t have held it. The sixth corp was on the way..and eventually extended the left flank beyond little round top. Because of killer angels and the movie Gettysburg a lot more importance is given to little Round top than any other place on the battle field
You are basically correct about the value of Culp’s hill.
However Pap Greene commanded the 3rd Brigade, Second Division of the XII Corp. Greene’s brigade was 5 NY regts. with a total strength of 1350 men. Greene held Culp’s Hill against Johnson, division, Ewell’s Corp. He did so, not by refusing the line, but by having his entire brigade dig a full set of trenches and breast works along their front. When Johnson’s 4700 man division attacked, Greene’s brigade easily held them off, inflicting heavy casualties. Steurts Maryland troops did work around the right flank of Greene’s position late in the battle, but Greene received some reinforcements from Wadsworth and that secured the right flank of Greene’s line. Pap Greene was an engineer before the war and recognized the value of entrenchments. Had he not entrenched his brigade, chances are Johnson would have taken that side of Culp’s Hill.
General Meade is one of our truest men and ablest officers. He has been constantly with that army, confronting the strongest, best-appointed and most confident army in the South. He therefore has not had the same opportunity of winning laurels so distinctively marked as have fallen the lot of other generals. But I defy any one to name a commander who could do more than he has done with the same chances. -- U.S. Grant
I do not believe so either.
It's roughly analogous, but not quite the same. The Joint Chiefs and their chair are staff, and technically and legally speaking, command nothing. Grant remained vested with all the authority of command.
isn’t it fun we are still debating strategy 150 years after the event.
My recollection is that a youtube video of the veterans of Gettysburg has sound, and one points out an odd noise made by the southern veterans as the Rebel Yell.
the strategy was pretty clear: US forces, Army of the Potomac were positioned between the pretended Army of Northern Virginia and Washington.
Lee could have avoided the AoP, but didn’t, rather sought to break the AoP by forcing it to fight by threatening Washington. If Lee had won, he would have exploited his victory by taking Washington and committing whatever destruction and murder they could have managed.
I don’t think it was Washington he was after but a decisive victory on Northern soil to force Lincoln to the negotiating table because there was a growing anti war sentiment growing in the north at the time of the battle. If Lee had won Lincoln would have a difficult time ignoring that sentiment.
You bet. The what ifs of Gettysburg will be replayed for generations to come.
Seriously doubt that Lee could have taken DC. Washington DC was probably the most heavily defended city in the world by 1863. Over fifty major forts, hundreds of gun emplacements, close to 800 artillery pieces and a garrison force of over 40,000 men. If Lee had won Gettysburg, he still had lost nearly a third of his army to casualties.
He had a train of wounded nearly 15 miles long and most of his artillery ammunition had been expended. If he was so inclined, the best that Lee could have done, in my opinion, was approach the city, lob a few artillery rounds into the works then head for Virginia. His political objectives would have been met at that point, without further damage to his army.
I figure Lee could have turned west, away from washington, but he just wasn’t as bright as Sherman when Sherman turned away from Hood to cross Georgia.
I agree that if Lee couldn’t take Culp’s Hill, or Little Round Top, he sure couldn’t take Washington. It was the threat to Washington that positioned Meade where he was, and it was the threat to Washington presented by Lee that forced the battle.
But Lee was fighting for Virginia and that kept him from going West.
I live in Lancaster and get to visit Gettysburg often. In fact I will be there again this Saturday for an all day seminar on the action that took place in the Wheatfield
Lee fighting for Virginia didn’t keep him from going North to Pennsylvania or Maryland, or from going south to review port defenses after losing West Virginia.
He went north to get the fighting out of VA which had been ravaged and to supply his army from the fields and farms of Pennyslvania which were ready for harvest. and hopefully gain a military and political victory on Northern soil. He tried the same thing the year before but the lost orders stymied him. I think part of the reason he wanted to try again he learned of those lost orders and then understood why McClellan moved so quickly ( for McClellan anyway). West Virginia was still Virginia until July 1863.