Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Smothering Mantle of Irrelevancy

Despite thousands of books, articles, columns, web sites, and various productions concerning this segment of our history, one question lingers like a specter eternally lurking maliciously in the shadows. It feasts on controversy such as that enveloping the current proposal to establish a casino just outside of the Gettysburg Battlefields. With this conflict to fuel its fire, the question springs forward as someone queries aloud, "Why do these grounds matter?" Relishing its power, the inquiry bears its sinister, toothy grin as it lunges again with, "Do the lands bordering Gettysburg, or any battlefield, significantly impact the life of those I love?"

As you might guess, I would argue strenuously in the affirmative. But that was not always the case.

Until recently, I did not care much for this particular period in our history, considering its study hardly useful. However, about five years ago, I found myself pacing impatiently in a bookstore, lamenting my inability to find a satisfactory read. But, as discussed in a previous entry, I happened upon the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "Killer Angels". Moving with increasing eagerness through its unexpectedly enthralling pages, I found that I had stumbled into an undiscovered world where men held dear seemingly antiquated qualities such as duty and honor. These citizens turned soldiers willingly and repeatedly endured hardships surpassing current standards of acceptability for little identifiable gain. Men became hardened to marching twenty or more miles daily, over rough, stony roads, frequently without shoes or adequate food and water. They did so both in the sweltering unforgiving heat of summer and the icy biting cold of winter. Week upon monotonous week passed drilling, marching, or doing nothing while trying to maintain some measure of morale and desperately missing home. Woven in-between the months of grinding tedium, soldiers encountered threads of savage conflict which destroyed countless lives, families, and at times, entire communities.

Currier and Ives' pictorial interpretations, gracing the pages of the illustrated papers, influenced how many citizens of that day pictured battles both great and small. Usually including one or two obligatory wounded, the images, especially early in the conflict, depicted lines of perfectly aligned men, dutifully advancing into battle courageously lead by a chivalrous mounted sword-wielding commander. Glory and fame awaited the majority who, these renderings implied, would survive this magnificent scene. Sadly though, the elegant images captured little of the real tragedy of war.

Officers frequently led men into battle in Napoleonic formations, often ignorant of both the position and number of the enemy in their front as well as the danger awaiting them. At Antietam for example, Union Major General Joseph Mansfield, proudly assuming his first field command, perished when shot by a foe he believed was elsewhere on the field. Just to the South, Union Major General William French's men advanced valiantly forward over the rolling hills of the Roulette Farm, marching in perfect formation unknowingly towards a solid gray line sheltered in a sunken farm road. Cresting a small rise, the bluecoats earned for their advance the reward of cold death and unspeakable pain as the Confederates opened fire. Irish and German immigrants, along with thousands of American citizen volunteers, whole just seconds before, would suffer the bone crushing impact of the violent hailstorm of lead balls filling the air from a massed array of carefully aimed muskets. The crash of the musketry merged with the agonized cries of the wounded to smother the commands of any officers still standing. Smoke from the hundreds of guns fired would obscure vision. Lacking a clearing breeze, formations crumbled as unsympathetic projectiles whirling towards them mowed down men standing out in the open, firing bravely at their sheltered foes.

The cornfield just hours earlier held similar scenes of horror. Union Major Rufus R. Dawes, writing of this fighting reported, "As we appeared at the edge of the corn, a long line of men in butternut and gray rose up from the ground. Simultaneously, the hostile battle lines opened a tremendous fire upon each other. Men, I cannot say fell; they were knocked out of the ranks by the dozens." George Smalley, a correspondent for the New York Tribune also wrote of this day, "The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us..….The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you cannot guide your horse's steps too carefully. Pale and bloody faces are everywhere upturned. They are sad and terrible but there is nothing which makes one's heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help which you cannot stay to give." [1]

Soft lead bullets and the iron fired from relentless artillery swept these fields tearing flesh and shattering bones. The wounded lay among the dead on the unforgiving, unsheltered ground, unsure whether aid or death would find them first. The figure of 23,000 casualties for one day's fighting remains grim enough on its own. But many more suffered slower, lingering deaths from wounds, disease, or the aftereffects of amputation and crude surgeries. The citizenry would endure trials as well as contagious, untreatable diseases ravaged many families who offered their homes, resources, and energy to help save those mangled by the unfeeling hand of battle.

Countless pages could be filled with equally horrid descriptions of such savagery. Mentioning such underscores that these labors, once survived, destroyed most illusions of the glory of war. Those who fought these battles knew the brutality that would tirelessly seek them out. Those who fought at Antietam would, less than one year later, fight, struggle, and die on the fields in and around Gettysburg. That they knew the dangers awaiting them is without question. One Southern soldier, moving northward in 1863 would write home to his family, "I have been this morning over the old Sharpsburg Battlefield and have witnessed the most horrible sights that my eyes ever beheld. I saw the dead in any number just lying on top of the ground, their bones bleaching and they by the many hundreds. Oh what a horrible sight for human beings to look upon." [2] Witness to the unprecedented killing of Antietam, the merciless slaughter of Fredericksburg, and the carnage of Chancellorsville, with thousands of dead killed by there sides, these men marched onward towards the inevitable collision at Gettysburg.

Walking the fields of Gettysburg, most appearing as they once did, you begin to comprehend. Certainly, countless books offer vivid depictions of what these men did, especially when concerning Gettysburg, the best-known battle of the four-year war. However, to stand on Seminary Ridge, at the foot General Lee's watchful eye atop the Virginia Monument, next to the now silent cannon, and begin the slow mile long walk towards the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, lends to a level of understanding which no printed page can attain. As the vegetation crunches under your feet, you marvel at their relentless advance into the face of the enemy, knowing that they understood what lay before them. You involuntarily sense relief when dipping into the occasional sheltering swale that mercifully offered fleeting but welcome concealment from the punishing artillery fire. About halfway through your walk, when you reach the Emittsburg Road, you enter within musket range of the men in your front. As you step forward from behind the post and rail fences and advance into the ever widening line of what was thousands of waiting primed muskets, the growing sense of awe sears itself into your soul.

Gleaning this from the undulating terrain of the field of Pickett's Charge, we owe this lesson to the preservation of the fields on which men fought, bled, and died some 140 years past. Books, articles, and publications hold the potential to inspire. Photographs or video can grip or tear at the heart. Yet lacking the ability to touch all of the senses, those inspirations sadly fade with the turning of the final page or the switching of the channel. But, some hot July afternoon, walk the fields at Gettysburg. Feel the rough ground under foot as you endure the wearing heat. See the distance traveled and the barriers overcome. Taste the dust kicked up from the dry ground as you walk along with the increasingly desperate determination as with each unwavering step you close on the Union lines. After such an experience, understanding what these men knew as they advanced, no heart can remain unchanged or forget the deeds which laid another brick in the foundation of our nation.

In a time when fleeting, disposable, and impermanent describe much of our society, our shared heritage remains one of the few enduring treasured constants. When disregarding the lessons of our past, we allow ourselves to remain susceptible to the pitfalls of political intrigue, manipulation, greed, barbarism, and the undesirable facets of many periods in our country's storied history. However, the valorous deeds of the common citizen turned soldier offer an inspiration that seeps into the soul to rekindle an awareness of the better angels of our shared identity.

These fields alone complete that lesson. The grounds where great deeds occurred offer a nourishing fragment of the spirit of those who marched, fought, and sacrificed here. Left unthreatened and unchanged, they hold the same potential for touching and inspiring generations yet to come.

With this, the question of the relevance of these sacred grounds shrinks back into the shifting shadows, surrendering its former ferocity to the smothering mantle of irrelevancy.



If you would like further information regarding the concerns with the proposal to establish a casino near the battlefield, please visit

All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved

[2] Antietam: A Documentary Film. Media Magic Productions Historical Films Group


GettysBLOG said...

If we fail to remember the past, and to honor it, fail to examine how we became the great nation we are, and if we fail to preserve not just the land where great deeds occurred in great abundance, but the essence and honor of those great deeds, we will fail as a nation to live up to what those who went before us accomplished.

We will surely become what other nations have become, a collection of jaded, politically agonistic peoples, capable only of demonstrating what man's cold inhumanity to man really means.

It will surely be the end of the American dream, the great experiment. To ignore our past is to discard our compass for the future, without which we are truly lost.

Missouri/ShowMe said...

This beautiful essay, serves to touch the heart of folks, like myself, who have never been to Gettysburg, but love every written word of it.

Our American History, seems to fade away everyday in one small way or another, with the need to impose ourselves on it. For what?
For money and greed.

Will politicians, and investors, and gamblers, so easily throw away those few parcels of land, left to our grandchildren? Those lands you so eloquently have described here?

Unfortunately? Yes.
Do we protest too much? No.

When something so important is at hand, do we feel our hands are tied in red tape? Always.

May enough men and women gather on these battlefields to fight the war against this CasiNO, to win the battle for the historical reverence, they so deserve.


Mary said...

Governor Rendell

May I say that I strongly object to a Casino complex in Gettysburg, PA. This land has had the blood of our forefathers shed here. This war was fought to preserve our nation. To unite all people here.

The Gettysburg Address
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Please read and digest the above, by Abraham Lincoln and reconsider the proposal for this action.
No Casinos in or near Gettysburg.