Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gettysburg

As we get set to celebrate Independence Day, another anniversary looms that should gives us pause for reflection. On this day,July 3rd, 147 years ago, the battle of Gettysburg ended. It was the bloodiest battle in the Civil War and one of the most deadly in all of American History (46,000 casualties, including almost 8,000 deaths). It was seen as a turning point in the war, the beginning of the end. And it was memorialized in Lincoln's Gettysburg address. The Union was saved , we began to be one people once again, but at a great cost.

Much has been written about the war, too often simplistic notions of what lead to it and what it was all about, but oftentimes it becomes an intellectual exercise , devoid of emotion or an understanding of the people involved. Michael Shaara wrote a book called The Killer Angels, about Gettysburg, later made into a miniseries. I watched it years ago and very much enjoyed it, now I want to read the book.

Especially after I just finished reading Gods and Generals, which was written by Jeff Shaara, Michael's son. This one is about the period leading up to Gettysburg, as seen through the eyes of four key generals: Robert E Lee, Thomas Johnathan (Stonewall) Jackson, for the Confederacy, and Winfield Scott Hancock , Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, for the Union. It shows where they came from (beginning in 1848 and the Mexican war) and what made them who they were, ultimately showing them in the early battles of the war.

The picture that emerges is of four deeply religious individuals (and their fellow soldiers) who all thought they were doing God's work, defending their homes, families, communities. Good people or faith can disagree and God is not bound to any of them. Pious words are easy, actions are not. They were often at the mercy of events that swept them along like a flood. And all saw situations where comrades were split by the war, friendships broken, in part due to the fact that we still did not see ourselves as one nation, but as a collection of states. None were really vocal or active in the debate over slavery, they simply were doing their duty as they saw it.

It also shows that just following orders can be disastrous. There were key parts in the battles when lower level commanders knew the top general was wrong, yet could not bring themselves to challenge the orders...too much military mindset training. And it brings home the reality of war, away from the cold strategy, to the human cost in blood, sweat and tears. Did you know that many of the soldiers (mainly the south) did not have shoes and marched barefoot?
One of the battles shown in the book is the town in which my wife went to college, Fredericksburg. I have been there with her and so I had some sense of what the terrain was like. I have also been to Gettysburg and seen the battlefield, though many,many years ago.

Two things that struck me as I read, apart from the observations above. One is that I shudder to think that people recently would even hint at the word secession (Texas Gov Rick Perry and others) and that states' rights would be the rallying cry for so many. How can we go back to the divisiveness of pre-Civil War days and have state governors think that they can just ignore federal law? That issue was settled, in much blood, and I believe it is only those with no true understanding of history that can spout careless words and concepts like these.

The other thing is that in all our conflicts we must channel our differences through peaceful means and ratchet down the rhetoric. It is healthy to have lengthy , and often contentious, debate over serious issues. But one thing must be certain. We debate as Americans, one nation united by history and purpose, and certain key principles. We must not seek to divide but to unite. As Lincoln had a forgiving attitude ("malice toward none ...charity towards all") towards the rebellious southern states, let us be gracious toward those we disagree with and focus on what we share in common, not those things that can so easily divide us.

As General Sherman once famously said "war is hell" and no one in their right minds (and hearts) would ever seek it willingly. These books (Gods and Generals, and Killer Angels) both show that and remind us that seeking peace is a much preferable goal.

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