War Seen Through the Carnage at Gettysburg
You can drive through the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania, passing the little towns along the route where Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his troops, tens of thousands filling the road bed for more than a mile, but it’s not possible to really imagine 71,000 men and boys marching into the slaughter to come, soaking the earth with blood on the Gettysburg Battlefield.
From public records, we have a pretty good idea about the numbers. They’re well established, but to know the human details, the horror and destruction, is more than any one person can hold steady in his or her mind.
Our imaginations just aren’t built for the magnitude of such slaughter.
In the three days about to be consumed in war, 5,000 of the men who followed Lee down the pike will fall dead in fields miles away from. Almost all will eventually be buried there.
We can’t let the catastrophe of the civil war and, especially this pivotal battle, resolve into simple matter of manageable statistics. Recruited in the South, 5,000 men and boys as young as fifteen will never leave the battlefield, their lives and others associated with them destroyed, families fatherless, brotherless, inert bodies so numerous that only some will be buried before the the Army of Northern Virginia flees in defeat from Pennsylvania.
It’s the end of Lee’s master plan for overwhelming the Union Army and sweeping toward Washington in a bold bid to, for all realistic attempts, preserve a culture dependent on slavery.
That’s not all. More than 3,000 Union soldiers will die too.
So, do the math. 8,000 men and boys killed in three days period in a small Pennsylvania town, Gettysburg with only 2,400 permanent residents, making the disaster more tragic in contrast.
But there’s more.
27,000 soldiers, counting men from both sides, will be wounded, many of their wounds so severe the soldiers will never be fit again for work that let them feed and clothe themselves and their families before the war.
Farmers won’t farm. Tailors won’t stitch. Even teachers will not instruct students.
Gettysburg is symbolic of the whole of the civil war because two massive killing machines collided other in a battle governed by visceral passions, but not the political ones, the will to live, to see loved ones again and to defend a mythical homeland.
Was there sufficient right on either side to justify the carnage?
In the whole war, according the most up to date estimates, 750,000 — three-quarters of a million — men and boys died, more than were killed all other American wars combined.
The strategies for both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg were simple.
General Lee wanted to draw the battle lines out of Virginia and take war to the North. By invading Pennsylvania, he hoped to crush the Union spirit and prove the Union could not keep the nation whole, thereby ending the war and protecting slavery.
The Union forces, now lead by General George Meade for only a few days, were determined to stop Lee and, doing so, reverse the course of a war they’d been losing from the start.
The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point in the Civil War.
Lee, defeated, remained ferocious, master of America’s most formidable killing machine but never mounted another offensive campaign. Once Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Union Army, the two men rammed their forces against each other until one wore out.
The mounting inhumanity after Gettysburg can be remembered in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched earth march across the South, burning Atlanta to the ground, destroying civilian lives and livelihoods without remorse, the results later romantically fictionalized in Gone With The Wind.
By the time it was over, only fools believed the United States was again one nation or anything more than a legal association. One hundred and fifty years later, the scars you can find all over the present day South burn barely below the surface.
The bitter legacy of the war lives on.
Back to the Battle of Gettysburg, apart from the retrospective historical view that suggests it was the crucial battle that changed the war, it’s significance has expanded because Abraham Lincoln traveled there to deliver his famous Address.
Invited to speak at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, four months after the battle, Lincoln was asked only to make a “few appropriate remarks.”
But following a two hour oration by Edward Everett Horton, he changed the meaning of the Civil War and all that it meant for humanity in just two minutes.
Starting with the well-known, “Four score and seven years ago,” President Lincoln tied the Union cause into the Founding Fathers’ Declaration of independence. He firmly tied it to equality for all, as set out by the Declaration and declared that the Union mission was the preservation of the democracy, its first formal step.
What did we learn from the Civil War?
We learned that under the right leadership and driven by passions, men and boys will sacrifice everything up to and including their lives on behalf of a principle, as long as leaders sell it well enough.
We learned that savagery can be cultivated in people who, outside the war, are gentle and kind.
In a war where many brothers died, sometimes fighting on different sides, we learned that politicians can goad civilians into horrific battles to achieve goals from which they may never benefit, even if lucky enough to survive.
Current history suggests we also learned that a nation as big and inclusive as the United States is not guaranteed internal peace by its principles or best intentions.
All politics are local and no war will ever change that, here or anywhere else.
David Stone is a New York City based writer. His books can be found on his Amazon Author Page.