In a Larger Sense, We Cannot …Hallow This Ground

The battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863: 150 years ago today.  Three days of unparalleled carnage followed.  Recent studies conclude that the Union army and the Confederate army each lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 23,000 soldiers in those three days.

It was Abraham Lincoln who said that the men who died there had consecrated this ground “far above our poor power to add or detract.”  That line is from the Gettysburg Address, of course, given on November 19, 1863.

But it was also Lincoln who said:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

That familiar judgment is from Lincoln’s second inaugural address, given in March of 1865—a year and eight months after Gettysburg and one month before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. 

It’s hard to know, 150 years later, how to feel about Gettysburg.  Lee didn’t invade Pennsylvania because he wanted to capture it; he invaded to show that he could go anywhere he wanted and that Lincoln couldn’t stop him.  The idea was to show that Lincoln’s war aims were a travesty and that Lincoln should sign a treaty then and there to end hostilities and recognize the realty that the north and south were sovereign nations, each controlling its own territory.

A Confederate victory at Gettysburg could very well have accomplished that.  Anti-war sentiment was strong in the north.  A war president is always popular when the war is going well.  Otherwise not. Lincoln was not.

Gettysburg, Day 1

You can see on the map what happened on the first day.  The Confederate armies, attacking from the north, pushed the Union armies right through the city of Gettysburg and onto the hills south of town.  On the second day, Lee faced an army larger than his, entrenched in positions on the high ground. He attacked the Union left wing on the second day, trying to get around Little Round Top.  He failed.  He attacked the Union center on the third day.  He failed again.  Then he took what was left of his army home to Virginia.

The most engaging accounts I know of Gettysburg are Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels and the movie, Gettysburg, which was based on that book.  Both the book and the movie emphasize the role of junior officers, improvising to shape the battle (like Brigadier General John Buford) or devising new tactics on the spot (Like Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain).  It was not a battle won by strategy, according to these accounts; it was a battle won by the imagination and daring of soldiers on the ground.

I understand a good deal about the battle because I have read books about it all my life, but my feelings are being played with these days—by Aaron Sorkin, of all people.  In the movie, Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee is played by Martin Sheen, who is dear to my heart as President Josiah Bartlet, of The West Wing.  Sorkin gave President Bartlet some of the best political speeches ever given on television.[1]  But Colonel Chamberlain is played by Jeff Daniels, who is dear to my heart as Will McAvoy of The Newsroom.  Sorkin has not yet given McAvoy the speeches he gave Bartlet, but the second season begins this month and we will see.[2]

There is no legitimate connection between Gettysburg and these two Sorkinesque characters, but I can’t see Col. Chamberlain without hearing Will McAvoy and I can’t see General Lee without hearing President Bartlet.

So I still know what I know about Gettysburg, but my feelings have gone all screwy.

[1] President Bartlet’s first spoken line in Season 1, Episode 1 is, “I am the Lord, thy God.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  It’s a snappy opening for a Democratic president, but the context  helps us understand how appropriate the line was.

[2] Will McAvoy delivered the line for which he is best known when a student asked him in public to say why America was the greatest country in the world.  He said, “It’s not the greatest country in the world.  That’s my answer.”  A three minute rant follows.  And after that, “…but we used to be.”  And after that “…and we could be again.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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