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5. The Many Meanings of Gettysburg

Glenn W. LaFantasie INshort ePub

5

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.

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9. Mr. Lincoln’s Victory at Gettysburg

Glenn W. LaFantasie Indiana University Press 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.

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7. Hell in Haymarket

Glenn W. LaFantasie Indiana University Press 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.

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5. Finding William C. Oates

Glenn W. LaFantasie Indiana University Press 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.

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13. The Many Meanings of Gettysburg

Glenn W. LaFantasie Indiana University Press 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.

See All Chapters

See All Chapters