Victory at Gettysburg

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The Civil War generation saw its world in ways startlingly different from our own. Glenn W. LaFantasie examines the lives and experiences of several key personalities who gained fame during the war. As a turning point in the war, Gettysburg had a different effect on each person.Victory at Gettysburg captures the human drama of the war and shows how this group of individuals endured or succumbed to the war and, willingly or unwillingly, influenced its outcome. At the same time, it shows how the war shaped the lives of these individuals, putting them through ordeals they never dreamed they would face or survive. The battle of Gettysburg is the thread that ties these Civil War lives together.

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1. Mr. Lincoln’s Victory at Gettysburg

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Mr. Lincoln’s Victory at Gettysburg

By the spring of 1863, as the Civil War cast a dark shadow across the land, it became more and more evident to soldiers and civilians alike that the terrible conflict between North and South had grown into a behemoth that no one could successfully control or constrain—a leviathan, like Melville’s great white whale, that set its own course and moved at its own speed and evaded every attempt to arrest its awesome power. Nothing in this awful war—what Abraham Lincoln called this “great national trouble”—had gone according to plan.1 The war had grown in intensity, in brutality, in the vastness of misery and loss that went far beyond what any American could have imagined in the passionate years that led up to the fall of Fort Sumter.

When mankind turns to war, as the North and South did in 1861, it sets in motion events that cannot be predicted or harnessed. “War,” wrote Thomas Paine in the eighteenth century, “involves in its progress such a train of unforeseen and unsupposed circumstances … that no human wisdom can calculate the end.”2 Unanticipated consequences flow out of actions that in retrospect seem tiny and insignificant. The Civil War, like all wars, swept over the land and unleashed itself from the hands of the men who had started it—men who could barely ponder its depth and fury in the wake of all that it had laid to waste.

 

2. Lincoln and the Gettysburg Awakening

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Lincoln and the Gettysburg Awakening

All of our roads lead to Gettysburg. Tragedy and eloquence draw us back to that special place, that crossroads town, and much of what it means to be an American seems to intersect there. We are drawn back by the distant call of trumpets and by the echoes of noble purpose. It is where our greatest gods of war clashed for three days and decided the nation’s fate; it is where our most revered president set forth both the promise and the hope of the nation’s future. Gettysburg is by any measure America’s most hallowed ground. But while we are repeatedly drawn back to those broad fields and rolling hills and to the story they have to tell, and no matter how often we may try to satisfy our longing to understand the meaning of Gettysburg, we are left mostly listening to those distant trumpets and far-off echoes, and we are never quite sure why we should feel an almost spiritual attachment to the bloody battle that was fought there and to the rather spare words that were spoken there.

 

3. Memories of Little Round Top

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Memories of Little Round Top

If Lincoln’s Address at Gettysburg not only brought forth a call for a “new birth of freedom,” but also set the sacrifice of the Union soldiers who died there within the emotional context of the nation’s “political religion,” it was the veteran soldiers who actually shaped how subsequent generations of Americans would comprehend what took place in the Civil War’s most bloody battle. Memories, sometimes faded and sometimes vibrant, would recall the actions of perfect heroes on both sides. Out of their memories, and sometimes using their remembrances as an instrument in the reconstruction of history (and thus of their own glory), the old soldiers forged a new meaning for the war and created its lasting legacies. Often these soldiers could not agree as to precisely what had happened to them and their comrades during the war or at specific places like Gettysburg; in other instances, old enemies, Union and Confederate, took up the fight again, battling over the meaning of the Civil War with words instead of bullets. As they looked to the past, the veterans sometimes softened their accounts, not wanting to upset delicate Victorian sensibilities, but just as often the harsh realities of war—its brutality, its inhumanity, its utter disregard for anything that lay in its path—came through with disturbing clarity. Over time, the veterans’ voices grew fainter, less audible, until they finally could no longer be heard at all. In time, too, the landscape of the Civil War changed, so that nothing in our modern world could be found that looked or sounded like it had when the perfect heroes had fought their great war and had given so much of themselves for their causes.

 

4. Ike and Monty Take Gettysburg

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Ike and Monty Take Gettysburg

Ghosts walk the land at Gettysburg, and anyone who visits the battlefield must come to grips with the fact that the place belongs to the spirits of the past. Nearly forty years ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Bernard Law Montgomery, two old generals—perfect heroes in their own right—who had won their own terrible war in Europe, toured the Gettysburg field together and discovered, just as Oates and Chamberlain had some fifty-five years before, that very little can be said about that hallowed ground, that land of honored spirits, without sparking fierce disagreement and igniting great controversy.1 With a hungry press corps accompanying them and hanging on their every word, Ike and Monty learned that at Gettysburg, where the specters always seem to be listening, one must tread lightly and speak with great care.

The two famous soldiers of World War II had talked about the Battle of Gettysburg from time to time during the war when Montgomery, the commander of the British and Canadian 21st Army Group, served under Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.2 For years Eisenhower had promised to take Montgomery on a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield, but when no specific invitation was ever made, Monty decided to press the issue. In November 1954, when Montgomery accompanied President Eisenhower, the first lady, and a small party of friends for Thanksgiving in Augusta, Georgia, the British field marshal announced that he would like very much to see the battlefield, and Eisenhower relented by inviting him to visit Gettysburg the following autumn, when renovations on the president’s farmhouse would be completed. Ike could not keep his promise, however; a heart attack put him in a Denver hospital in the fall of 1955, and Montgomery’s visit was spent at the president’s bedside rather than on the battlefield.3

 

5. The Many Meanings of Gettysburg

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The Many Meanings of Gettysburg

Perhaps it is enough to say that Gettysburg has captured the American imagination because the battle brought forth, in one monstrous moment of violence, a great victory and a great defeat. But does that fully explain why nearly 2 million Americans annually visit the battlefield? Does it really tell us why so many books are written about the battle every year, why so many questions still persist about the events that shaped the contest and the men who fought it? Eisenhower and Montgomery both learned the hard way that Gettysburg means something special to the American people. “The Past,” wrote Herman Melville in his novel White-Jacket (1850), “is dead, and has no resurrection.”1 At Gettysburg, though, the past and present always seem to be the same thing.

Since the summer of 1863, when the largest battle on American soil was fought across the gentle fields and hills of Gettysburg, we have sought to know its deeper meaning. The battle and the place, now enshrined in the American memory, have come to mean many different things to different people.

 

6. Feeling the Past at Gettysburg

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Feeling the Past at Gettysburg

Something that Bruce Catton wrote many years ago about Gettysburg comes to mind every time I visit the battlefield. “The battle was here and its presence is felt,” Catton said, “and you cannot visit the place without feeling the echoes of what was once a proving ground for everything America believes in.”1 Although I’ve long wondered about Catton’s curious choice of words (most people hear echoes rather than feel them), I think he meant precisely what he said.

Despite the garish commercialism that for years has threatened to overwhelm the now peaceful battlefield at Gettysburg, it is still possible to feel the past there. I collided with those feelings several years ago when my youngest daughter, Sarah, and I visited the battlefield on a cloudy and misty day in May to conduct a historical experiment in the style of Francis Parkman and Samuel Eliot Morison, two historians who insisted on visiting the places they wrote about. This was the dad-and-daughter outing I mentioned in an earlier chapter. My intent was that my daughter and I could trace the route Colonel William C. Oates and the 15th Alabama took in launching their doomed attack against Little Round Top. The day turned out to hold much more in store for us than I had imagined.

 

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