Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground

Views: 346
Ratings: (0)

The Civil War generation saw its world in ways startlingly different from our own. In these essays, Glenn W. LaFantasie examines the lives and experiences of several key personalities who gained fame during the war and after. The battle of Gettysburg is the thread that ties these Civil War lives together. Gettysburg was a personal turning point, though each person was affected differently. Largely biographical in its approach, the book captures the human drama of the war and shows how this group of individuals-including Abraham Lincoln, James Longstreet, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, William C. Oates, and others-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.

List price: $19.99

Your Price: $15.99

You Save: 20%

 

14 Slices

Format Buy Remix

1. Lee’s Old War Horse

ePub

One of the Confederacy’s perfect heroes, James Longstreet, should have been honored by the South for all his great feats on the battlefields of the Civil War, but it was his fate to become an object of scorn and ridicule in the postwar era. What set his fellow Southerners off against him was the inconstancy that formed a pattern in his life. There was something about him that made people generally question his fealty, faithfulness, and dependability. In his autumnal years, Longstreet met one of his family’s former slaves, his “old nurse” Daniel, on a visit to Mississippi. “Marse Jim,” said Daniel, “do you belong to any church?” Longstreet replied matter-of-factly, “I try to be a good Christian.” Old Daniel stopped laughing long enough to say: “Something must have scared you mighty bad to change you so from what you was when I had to care for you.”1 What old Daniel found so remarkable was not that Longstreet had embraced religion in his adulthood, for many a man turns to God as his years grow shorter, but that his master’s convictions could have changed so radically over the years. Daniel was not alone. Others who knew Longstreet during his long life—as a soldier in the United States Army, as a general in the armies of the Confederacy, as a politician after the Civil War, or even as a friend—reacted to him in similar ways. In a famous quote, a subordinate once said of Longstreet: “I consider him a humbug.”2

 

2. Frank A. Haskell: Tragic Hero of the Union

ePub

If James Longstreet’s inconstancy set a pattern in his life, just the opposite was true of Lieutenant Frank A. Haskell, a Union officer who watched as Longstreet’s butternut ranks streamed toward Cemetery Ridge on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. Haskell, a studious lawyer from Vermont by way of Wisconsin, who served as an aide to Union Brigadier General John Gibbon at Gettysburg, always walked the straight and narrow path toward what he desired. There was no doubt in his mind, no misgiving in his heart. As he stood at the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, marveling at the sight before him, he did not want to be any other place on earth. He understood, as other perfect soldiers at Gettysburg also seemed to realize, that this battle would go down in history as a milestone. The war had reached its turning point, and Lieutenant Frank Haskell instinctively knew it.

In a letter to his brother written after the battle, Haskell described the scene in vivid detail: “More than half a mile their front extends, more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. Their red flags wave; their horse-men gallop up and down; the arms of eighteen thousand men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on they move as with one soul . . . magnificent, grim, irresistible.”1

 

3. Becoming Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

ePub

When it comes to Gettysburg heroes, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain out-shines all the rest. Although he was hardly the perfect soldier, modern Americans have come to see him as one. In the minds of many, he stands as the ultimate model of what a military hero should be. Yet Chamberlain’s reputation was made over time; it did not spring forth fully formed, complete in all its glory and honor, from the head of Zeus or on the field of battle. Indeed, Joshua Chamberlain was actually an unlikely hero. But once he accepted the mantle of a perfect hero, he wore it proudly and for the rest of his life.

Soldiers are made, not born. Nothing in Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s life prior to the Civil War suggested that he would one day become known as “the Hero of Little Round Top,” that he would earn a Medal of Honor, and that he would gain great fame and even celebrity with a following of devoted admirers in his own lifetime and in our own modern age. Nothing that he achieved prior to the outbreak of the war seemed to prepare him for his moment of truth on the hillside at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, when his quick thinking and iron determination enabled his regiment, the 20th Maine Infantry, to hold the left flank of the Army of the Potomac and throw back a fierce enemy assault. In fact, Chamberlain’s life during the antebellum years took him about as far afield of military matters and battlefield heroism as a man could get.

 

4. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the American Dream

ePub

An air of expectation filled the Boston Music Hall as the audience waited for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the incumbent governor of Maine and “the Hero of Little Round Top,” to be introduced. Chamberlain was going to speak on one of his favorite subjects, “The Left at Gettysburg,” and his skill as a public orator had already brought him considerable fame in his home state and throughout New England. It was “the celebrity of Gen. Chamberlain,” said one newspaper, that had drawn the sizable crowd to the music hall that November evening in 1868. The people of Boston wanted to see for themselves this great hero of the war and hear him tell his tale.

He did not disappoint them. Chamberlain described in vivid detail the bloody afternoon of July 2, 1863, when he had saved the Union army by ordering his regiment—the 20th Maine Infantry—to make a desperate bayonet charge down the slopes of Little Round Top in the face of a superior Confederate force. For more than an hour, the audience was entranced by his “glowing eloquence” and “graphic power.” The lecture, said one reporter, was “a masterly production.”1 No one who saw his performance that night could have ever doubted that Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a true American hero.

 

5. Finding William C. Oates

ePub

Little Round Top was a place where heroes could be found in abundance on July 2, 1863, although in recent times it seems almost as if Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain fought on that hill by himself and against an amorphous foe. Yet, as I’ve shown, there were men engaged in that fight who did not agree with Chamberlain’s account of the battle, including men in the ranks of the 20th Maine as well as his adversary that day, William C. Oates, the colonel who commanded the 15th Alabama regiment at Gettysburg. Indeed, as a historian I was not attracted to the Little Round Top story by having first encountered Joshua Chamberlain and his exploits, but rather by having stumbled upon William Oates by accident. Sometimes historians and biographers find themselves traveling down roads they never intend to follow and discovering views of the past they never expect to behold. When I started to research and write about Oates some fifteen years ago, I did not know how enthralled I would become with his life, his times, and his family.

 

6. An Alabamian’s Civil War

ePub

For William Calvin Oates, as we have already seen, the Civil War lasted a very long time. It began for him, as it did for all Americans, with the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in April 1861. It reached its zenith on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, when Oates and his brave regiment failed to dislodge the 20th Maine from the slopes of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. His Confederate service ended in 1864 outside of Petersburg when he lost his right arm in a fierce fire fight. But Oates’s war did not terminate with his wound or with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Instead, as I have shown, it lived on for him in his thoughts, in his actions, and in his memory until the day he died. It remained part of his daily consciousness. William C. Oates never put the war behind him.

Today Oates is not widely known, although Civil War scholars and buffs readily recognize his name. Mostly he is remembered for having lost the fight for Little Round Top. This ignominious distinction was not the kind of fame Oates aspired to during his lifetime. But he never quite achieved the renown that he thought he deserved, not during his lifetime or after his death. Despite his own best efforts—which bear a striking similarity to Chamberlain’s—to elevate himself and his fame, Oates remains a Civil War figure who occupies a fairly low tier beneath the likes of Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis.

 

7. Hell in Haymarket

ePub

Perhaps one reason the Civil War would not end for William C. Oates was because its human cost was so high. As we have seen, the loss of his brother at Gettysburg haunted him for the rest of his life. There were other human losses, too, particularly early in the war, long before the 15th Alabama fired any shot in anger at an enemy or participated in any combat on a battlefield.

Disease and primitive medical knowledge were actually the Civil War soldier’s worst enemies. For every soldier killed in battle, two died of disease. During their first summer of service in the Confederate army, Oates and his comrades of the 15th Alabama Infantry watched as the first casualties dropped from their ranks, not from wounds inflicted by their Federal foes, but from the deadlier onslaught of microbes and viruses in their camp. The Alabamians learned before they ever fired a single shot in anger that war often brought suffering and death where they were least expected and that this particular war would seldom show mercy to anyone caught in the swath of its deadly scythe.

 

8. William C. Oates and the Death of General Farnsworth

ePub

If nothing else, William C. Oates was a superb lawyer. Having served his law apprenticeship with the famous firm of Pugh, Bullock, and Buford in Eufaula, Alabama, during the late 1850s, he had acquired great skills in researching, filing, and presenting his cases. He earned a tidy sum of money working at his profession before the Civil War, and in the postwar years he accumulated a small fortune in fees from his clients. He even managed to win an acquittal in a murder charge brought against his brother, J. Wyatt Oates (although Counselor Oates admitted to bribing the jury to get the favorable verdict). He knew his way in and out of the courtroom, his talents as an attorney became widely known in the Wiregrass Country of southeastern Alabama, and he was paid handsomely for winning numerous cases, especially if they involved property law and disputes over fee simple ownership of real estate.

On the Civil War battlefield, though, Oates was both brilliantly capable and shockingly incompetent. Even at Gettysburg, where he won fame—if not military victory and honors—in his fight against Joshua Chamberlain’s famous 20th, he ignored direct orders by scaling Big Round Top before descending and attacking Little Round Top, and his actions, although consistently brave and diligent, suggest an officer who worked by instinct alone rather than by the rigors of duty, discipline, and obedience.

 

9. Mr. Lincoln’s Victory at Gettysburg

ePub

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.

 

10. Lincoln and the Gettysburg Awakening

ePub

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.

One reason for that spiritual attachment is obvious. The fierce fighting that occurred at Gettysburg for three days in July 1863, when the Union Army of the Potomac collided with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, resulted in more than fifty-one thousand casualties. The soldiers who died there gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, the “last full measure of devotion” as Lincoln aptly called it, and it is difficult not to see that act of sacrifice as something precious, something holy, something grandly divine. Thousands of lives were lost on every battlefield in that great and terrible war, and yet Gettysburg resonates with the deepest spiritual connections, hearkening the soul back to the bowers, forging a tangible link with the past that can, for many people, be felt and not just seen. Gettysburg, wrote Bruce Catton, “was, and is, preeminently the great American symbol, and it is not to be touched lightly. It has overtones.”1

 

11. Memories of Little Round Top

ePub

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.

 

12. Ike and Monty Take Gettysburg

ePub

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

 

13. The Many Meanings of Gettysburg

ePub

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.

 

14. Feeling the Past at Gettysburg

ePub

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.

 



Details

Print Book
E-Books
Slices

Format name
ePub (DRM)
Encrypted
true
Sku
9780253000170
Isbn
9780253000170
File size
0 Bytes
Printing
20 times / 30 days
Copying
20 times / 30 days
Read aloud
No
Format name
ePub
Encrypted
No
Printing
Allowed
Copying
Allowed
Read aloud
Allowed
Sku
In metadata
Isbn
In metadata
File size
In metadata