Sunday, October 01, 2006

Commentary: Our Capacity for Gallantry and Brutality

When I first created this blog, I announced my intention to fill these pages with responses to e-mails and questions that arose both from my postings here and from my primary website, Having strayed somewhat from that purpose, a recent reader has politely brought me back to center. He wrote, " I am intrigued by what you said in this blog: "Gettysburg is a good thing. It’s a symbol of what we were and could yet again become, in both a negative and positive aspect." Would you mind elaborating on that thought? I'd love to understand your perspective on the relation to Gettysburg and our future."

So many thoughts swirled in anticipation of answering this question that I struggled mightily with how to organize them. I did not know where to begin. Familiar sayings such as "Those who ignore the lessons of history are bound to repeat them" came to mind. While such wisdom resonates, (surely we cannot understand how we arrived here without studying from whence we came) even this thought seemed to trivialize the essence of Gettysburg. While considering the competing ideas contending for the privilege of defining this place, something continuously drew me back to the hallowed ground where ten thousand died and many more suffered wounds.

First and foremost, Gettysburg is a place where events occurred the depth of which I cannot fathom. A tremendous number of ordinary Americans, over 160,000, collided on these now peaceful fields. Most of these men knew intimately the horrors of war. They withstood the incomprehensible slaughter at Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. The veterans of such conflicts saw men mowed down, thousands killed in what seemed mere moments. If not harmed themselves, certainly many tended to the grievously wounded or aided with burying the ever-growing number of dead. Still, with these images fresh in their minds, on the farms and fields of Gettysburg they again shouldered muskets and faced the enemy. On Cemetery Ridge, along the low stone row, men in blue gazed across the mile wide stretch of gently rolling fields, knowing what was to come. Standing now on the same ground, envisioning the long gray lines moving irresistibly in their direction, one cannot avoid wondering what drove men to risk never again seeing their wives, children, parents, and friends. By braving a hailstorm of deadly lead and exploding iron, they offered to forever sacrifice their hopes, dreams, and futures.

While the grisly depictions of battle ring familiar, how many dare to truly consider what these men faced? Most soldiers had seen first hand the devastation wrought by artillery rounds moving at over 1,000 feet per second. Solid shot continues through any man it hits. No mercy. No second chance. What just one ball touches, it shatters. As one soldier aptly stated, "The truth is, when bullets are whacking against tree trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like eggshells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way." Shell and case shot, iron projectiles filled with gunpowder and iron balls, exploded in the ranks when burning fuses touched the powder inside or when percussion caps slammed violently into the ground. Iron flew in all directions, mangling anything in its path. When oncoming soldiers closed to within range, canister replaced long-range ammunition. Small iron balls packed in tin cans converted lines of cannon into a formidable array of massive shotguns. Soldiers described rows of men simply vanishing when a cannoneer unleashed canister, leaving only a faint red mist to drift away in the grim foul air of the now christened battlefield.

When considering Pickett’s Charge from the Southern point of view, if the men in gray survived the hell of the artillery fire, several thousand muskets leveled at the advancing line awaited only a target. An ounce of lead fired from a rifled musket shattered bones and tore flesh. Soldiers wounded by shot, shell, or ball that had first hit a man in their front at times needed to have pieces of that person removed from their own wounds. The soldiers with both Lee's and Meade’s army knew this, and yet they marched forward.

As the Confederates advanced, the waiting Union soldiers knew they faced perhaps the largest most successful army on the planet. Prior to the Civil War, the entire United States Army counted only about 16,000 soldiers in its ranks. Lee’s army would number about 75,000 with some 12,500 marching towards them in several lines, muskets loaded, eyes forward. In one year, Lee’s soldiers won victories on the Peninsula, Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Still the Federals held their ground, determined to fight.

The question "why" frequently echoes in my head as I wonder about these men and ask how similar in capacity might we prove ourselves if in like circumstances. The soldiers of both armies came from the people of the land, laborers, farmers, professionals, lawyers, teachers, printers, writers, politicians, professional soldiers, landowners, and immigrants. They had families and futures. If for just a moment you could look into their eyes, grip their hands, you would see a person, no different from the people of any era including ours. The crude pictures and period clothes make distancing ourselves from them both simple and at times convenient. Yet still we ask, could we have braved the fatal fire? Would we have killed on such a horrific scale? Would we prove capable of the same gallantry, bravery, and brutality?

Looking past the horror of the battlefield, we easily find other possible parallels to our own time. The men of the army suspected treachery in the government. They missed home. Political parties created smear campaigns, spinning stories and using the media to attack their opponents. The country had massive war debt. The President sacrificed civil liberties on the altar of national security and victory in war. Common people came together to support the soldiers, even if they disapproved of the war. People of all quarters sacrificed. Riots erupted to protest perceived unfair treatment. In these instances, we know of our capacity to do the same.

Along with these issues, there remain countless relevant questions when considering the Civil War. What does it take for one human to consider enslaving another? Why would someone risk dismemberment or gruesome death to keep someone else’s slave in chains or likewise to shatter those shackles and set them free? How did this one massive battle with its 50,000 casualties impact the rest of the war and the country? How did the families cope with such overwhelming loss and sorrow? How did the war change our country? How did we overcome the intense animosity between the north and south, black and white, immigrant and citizen, republican and democrat? Did this war give birth to a strong centralized federal government? If so, what did we gain and what did we lose? How did we cope with the suspension of civil rights? How did we resolve the problems stemming from the tremendous war debt? What lessons could we learn from reconstruction? How did Lincoln benefit from assembling a cabinet comprised of members of both political parties, three of whom had run against him for President? Without the ability to study our history, we cannot answer these questions and apply the knowledge gained to current similar situations. In short, we could not learn from our past and would most certainly repeat the same mistakes while trying to gain what others had already achieved.

Despite the obvious benefits from pursuing these issues, several questions continue rise above the others. How could these men repeatedly face death? Do we all have the same capacity for such bravery? Likewise, how could men, who would typically never have considered such acts, riot, ransack, and plunder? Again, do we all have a similar capacity? Do we have within us what they had?

My quest to understand the American Civil War began serendipitously when by sheer good fortune I found and read the book Killer Angels. Within days I drove several hours to see Gettysburg and the fields where such unbelievable deeds transpired. I walked slowly onto the field of Pickett’s Charge and stood breathlessly looking out over the mile wide stretch of ground traversed by thousands, and defended by thousands more. Without the battlefield to inspire, without the firsthand opportunity to learn and ponder, not only would I not have the opportunity to seek the answers, I likely would not have asked the questions. If we do not learn from what our ancestors have done, for better or worse, we will make many of their mistakes again much to the detriment of the people with us today as well as those yet to come.

"Forget the past, and the future may now allow us time to repeat it. History is never antiquated, because humanity is always fundamentally the same." - Walter Rauschenbusch



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Anonymous said...

Randy, I thought that this writing was profound, especially the last paragraph. I thank you for your response and look forward to more of your postings. Thank you!

Randy said...

Hello again,

I appreciate the compliment. Thank you for your inital question which both inspired and reminded me of why I began this blog in the first place.


Anonymous said...

I've been reading up on Gettysburg recently (due to growing interest in the events) and many people are saying that Gettysburg is the Rebirth of America. This seems interesting to me not only because it redefined America, but I also think that once people visit Gettysburg, the idea of what it is to be American is reconceived in their minds. What are your thoughts on this?

Randy said...

I'm sorry to say but I honestly haven't heard Gettysburg referred to specifically as the Rebirth of America but that does sound similar to how President Lincoln defined the meaning of the battle.

I know that I have heard several historians discuss that, at the time, people both north and south did not necessarily see Gettysburg as the Confederacy’s high water mark. For example, over a year later, Lincoln thought he would lose the presidential election due in part to the continued lack of success of the Union armies.

As for how people view Gettysburg today...well, that is a different story. Some view it with reverence, some with respect, and others with curiosity. Sadly, some view it with indifference, or worse, as a potential source of revenue (such as those attempting to build a casino nearby.)

I view Gettysburg as consistently inspiring and re-invigorating. I see in Gettysburg all the potential for what we can yet become in part because of what they showed common men could do. Most importantly, I think it serves to honor those thousands who sacrificed so much that this nation might become the home within which we live today.