Remember Gettysburg

Today is July 1, which is being treated across the United States as the gateway to a long weekend and the Fourth of July, and little more. July 1 is also, however, the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the most important and most deadly battle of the many important and deadly conflicts in the American Civil War. The two American armies that clashed in the Pennsylvania town sustained more than 50,000 casualties on the Gettysburg battlefield, which may be the saddest and noblest place in America.

If you have not made at least one pilgrimage to the battlefield, you owe it to yourself, and to the memory of the combatants, to go. Obviously Gettysburg is a historically important location. It is also where there were more instances of human courage, nobility and sacrifice than in any other three day period in American history. The names—Hancock, Buford, Warren, Chamberlain, Longstreet, Custer, Meade, Armistead, Garner, Pickett, and many others—-their exploits have come down to us through history, but the unrecorded heroics of thousands more anonymous soldiers, many buried unnamed in the mass graves at Gettysburg National Cemetery were equally remarkable and inspiring.

The Battle of Gettysburg was as vital to the development and preservation of American values as Independence Day, and just as great a symbol of what our ancestors were willing to risk in the quest for the liberty that each if us now has as a birth right. That the Confederacy’s mission was fatally flawed by attaching its passion for freedom to the power to withhold it from the enslaved should not diminish our respect for its soldiers’ courage on the field of battle. To look at the long, open field where Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered General Pickett’s men to march, in ranks, into Union artillery and massed rifles is to understand that human beings can and will act against self-interest for values they believe are more important than life itself.

If you can’t travel to Gettysburg this weekend or this summer, you can celebrate the battle’s heroes by reading what may be the best historical novel ever written, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. You should also consider watching the movie based on the novel, “Gettysburg.” Ted Turner’s epic film is long, and in some places clumsy, but the film boasts some wonderful performances by Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain, Stephen Lang as Pickett, Richard Jordan (who was dying as the film was being made) as Gen. Lew Armistead, and Tom Berenger, unrecognizable as Gen. Longstreet. It was filmed on the battlefield, and makes the complicated battle comprehensible. “Gettysburg” also has one of my favorite soundtracks of all time, by Randy Edelman.

Inspiring, horrifying, amazing, confusing and tragic, the Battle of Gettysburg contained enough ethical lessons and controversies to last any of us a lifetime. We can’t absorb or even know them all. One thing is certain, however: as Americans, we have an obligation to remember.

18 thoughts on “Remember Gettysburg

  1. Thanks, Jack, for the reminder. (I actually make an annual thing of watching 3 movies on Independence Day weekend: “1776,” “Gettysburg,” and — God help me — “Independence Day.”) I have been to the Gettysburg battlefields a few times, and it is always an awesome experience in the saddest senses of the word. I am also usually wary of the concept of fighting for “values [they] believe are more important than life itself,” as this can mask ideology, which is always more suspect in my opinion. Whether or not Chamberlain actually said these words, my favorite scene in “Gettysburg” is when he is addressing the soldiers and says “What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other.” I can’t say for certain, but I think that’s how my nephew might have felt in Iraq.

  2. Jack,
    Battlefields are not hallowed ground and pilgrimages to such places, except to quell historical curiosity, are silly in the extreme.

    -Neil

    • What a bizarre and thoroughly unsupportable point of view, Neil! It’s a pity you think that way. You miss a great deal. Fortunately, it is an extreme minority opinion, and unlikely to gain any traction, or the nation’s understanding of its history, origins and tests will be even worse than it already is.

      Presumably you feel the same about visits to Westminster Abbey and Arlington National Cemetery. To which I can only say—wow.

      • …or the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor…over 1000 men are entombed there as it still leaks oil (black tears) to this day…

        I’m with you Jack, I still get choked up at such places and silently wonder if I could muster the courage of those who gave “their last full measure of devotion”.

        Scott Clark

        • How can anyone not? When I took my Dad to Gettysburg, the old soldier looked at the scene of Pickett’s Charge and said, “This ground makes me sick to my stomach. This was worse than Normandy. How could any soldiers do this?” How indeed.

      • Jack,
        The dead are beyond caring what the living do to “honor” their memories. Battlefields can be a very vivid and powerful way of bringing history to life and making it “real,” but the land itself is just that, land. Should a shopping mall now sit on the top of Cemetery Ridge, it would be a terrible loss for history and posterity perhaps, but those that died there or the causes for which they fought would be no less real.

        In the end, you’re talking about “remembering” people we never really knew and “honoring” a sacrifice that’s somewhat ambiguous. Men like Lee and, to a lesser extent, Meade can provide great historical examples and help make our understanding of the war more real, but at this remove we can never really understand them as people. We can try, but it’s guesswork at best. The dead are, quite simply, beyond our understanding. Those of us lucky to be alive here and now are what really matter and is where our attention should be focused. Drawing inspiration from the past is one thing, but growing overly sentimental over places to which you have no real connection just strikes me as silly.

        Don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that history ISN’T important or that there aren’t important lessons to be learned from its study, only that it’s a secondary concern. The sins of the father are not passed to the son, nor do I think one generation is bound by the chains of the previous one. The past is written already, but the future is still ours to decide. The Civil War left a scar on American History that will, perhaps, never really fade, but it’s also not a wound we must continue to mend either.

        I guess my point is, you’d do more to honor the sacrifices of those who’ve fought and died for this country by visiting your nearest VA Hospital than you ever will by standing in the middle of an empty field in Pennsylvania.

        -Neil

        • I don’t disagree with the logic, precisely, just the conclusion. Memory is the only immortality anyone has, and history and lives have lessons. naturally dead people couldn’t know or care whether anyone remembers them or not, but we should care, because what they did and stand for has lessons to teach, values to convey, and knowledge to refine. A so-called “pilgrimage” “honors” the dead only in the sense, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, that it helps make sure that they did not die and live in vain. There is the citizen’s duty to remember, as part of civic literacy, and actually visiting such sites are invaluable to the remembering process. I was out of college before I understood what Pickett’s charge was; I didn’t fully understand what it signified until I saw the field. I have used various lessons from that one event in countless ethics lectures—it made me wiser, and enabled me to help others learn too. Going to visit these places, and to exert the effort to reaffirm their importance, does help them stay vital, and part of out collective heritage and wisdom. It isn’t silly and it isn’t misguided…it’s important. But we certainly don’t do it for dead people who are long gone and beyond caring. We do it for ourselves.

      • Misguided to go and visit the sites of crucial moments and turning points in American—or world–history? I think I prefer “silly”—that just proves that Neil was bitten by a history teacher while he was young. But “misguided”? Misguided by what? Respect for those who have gone before us? An appreciation of key moments and events that determined our lives and destiny? A feeling of a connection to bold, brilliant and risk-taking ancestors whose actions inspired us? What could you possibly be talking about? And what’s the matter with you?

        I’ve walked the decks of the Constitution, which helped save the young American nation by defeating the best ships in the greatest navy in the world.. I’ve peered out the window of the Old North Church, where Paul Revere’s signal was given. I’ve stood where Travis died at the Alamo, and where Armistead breached the Union lines; I’ve stood where Martin Luthor King said “I have a dream,” where Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty, or give me death!”, and where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address. And I’ve been, many times, to Fenway Park, where the young heroes of 1967 taught me never to give up.

        Every one of those “pilgrimages” and many more made me more determined to be the best person and American I could be, in whatever time I was given and in whatever opportunity was presented to me. Misguided? Silly? Your attitude on this topic is incomprehensible.

        • Jack,
          I feel like you’ve misunderstood my point. There’s wrong with traveling to a place to make it more real and in that way connect to what happened, but it’s just emotion. Looking out the window of the Old North Church may have made you feel more connected to Paul Revere, but it didn’t actually give you a better understanding of who he was or what he was fighting for, it simply made the story more tangible. Again, there’s NOTHING wrong with that, but I also don’t think it makes the place itself somehow “special.”

          Whatever visiting such places does for you is irrelevant as it’s a personal experience that won’t necessarily hold true for everyone. A friend of mine got religion and was “born again” on a mountaintop near Jerusalem while another had it happen after watching a free screening of the Passion. What mattered isn’t where they were, but what they felt inside. The same is true for battlefields and war memorials, it’s simply a way to connect. Moreover, what affects one person won’t necessarily affect another, so yes, it’s SILLY to suggest that people owe it to themselves to visit such places as though they’re to miss some key part of the American experience if they don’t (I realize you never said that specifically, but that does seem to be the general thrust) .

          All in all, “misguided” and “silly” were, I feel, the most non-confrontational words I could use, so I’m confused by your vehemence. It’s silly to ME (mea culpa) and, because of that, I took slight umbrage at your suggestion that I was somehow “missing out” because I (and others like me) don’t find it necessary to visit memorials just to understand what happened there.

          Finally, my uncontested main point is still that you’d do more to honor the sacrifices of those who’ve fought and died for this country by visiting your nearest VA Hospital than you ever will by standing in the middle of an empty field in Pennsylvania. Living heroes should be honored, dead heroes are only fragments of history.

          -Neil

          • Neil wrote
            ” Living heroes should be honored, dead heroes are only fragments of history.”

            This is an insensitive comment. I don’t consider my dead hero nephew buried in Arlington a “fragment of history,” nor do I feel that visiting his grave is “silly” or “misguided.” I visit regularly to honor him and the bravery that had him out on patrol looking for the abductors of some of his comrades in arms. I would visit the place where he encountered an IED south of Baghdad if I could. You can argue that this is different because he was a member of my family. But everyone buried at the cemetery in Gettysburg was a member of someone’s family, and we continue to honor those dead when we visit those cemeteries and monuments and battlefields as proxy for their families who might be long dead.

            War is evil and I would not glorify it. But I will always honor those who served faithfully.

  3. Gettysburg has been one of my favorite places to visit for quite some time now, and I go there about 2 or 3 times a year. Usually a trip is sparked by a sudden feeling of being drawn to the area. It happens all the time. It’s the way the sunlight hits the trees in the fall or the way the fog rolls off the fields as I drive to work in the morning that remind me of the battlefield, and suddenly I have to be there. Strange, I know, to feel pulled toward a particular spot, and up until recently I didn’t understand. A few months ago I discovered that my great-great- grandfather fought in the Civil War and was present at Gettysburg. He was Sgt. Remi Boerner of the 72nd PA Vol Inf. Company G. (aka, Baxter’s Fire Zouaves) He fought at the Angle during Pickett’s Charge, and survived the war. He later fathered 12 children. This weekend, especially on Sunday, I will be thinking of him, thankful that I am here today, because many of those boys never made it home like Remi.

  4. Jack,
    Last point. If anything, would Appomattox Courthouse or Independence Hall be a more worthy place to visit as they’re both places where fighting ended? After all, as much heroism and bravery that can be spurned by war, doesn’t it make more sense to delight in the victories (i.e. peace) more than the battles? Or in bravery and heroism exhibited in every day people whose valor wasn’t forced at the barrel of a gun? Thousands may have died at Gettysburg, but Appomattox is where people STOPPED dying (or at least on account of the war, anyway) and that, to me, is worth infinitely more.

    Wars are evil. Necessary, perhaps, but evil. Thus, I fail to see how we all gain a better understanding of ethics, civility, bravery, or any other admirable trait by learning the ways in which men have learned to destroy each other over the centuries. I’m not a pacifist nor do I think peaceful solutions are always preferable to conflict, only that when conflict happens, it’s not something to revel in.

    -Neil

    • I considered “silly,” and decided to stay with “misguided.” Unlike you and your father, Jack, I believe most Americans go to these sites to bolster their already incomplete view of American history. They visit Old North Church and think Paul Revere was riding to defend the Second Amendment. They visit Gettysburg and talk about how the founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery. They visit Arlington and marvel at the glory of dying for one’s country.

      Like Neil, I believe war is evil and inevitable, but almost always avoidable, including our present three wars. I work with Iraqi refugees, and not one has thanked me for occupying their country. The most common sentiment is that, at least with Saddam, they knew what to expect. Their words, not mine.

      I guess what’s the matter with me is that I don’t have the same experience. I respect your experience and don’t really think there’s anything wrong with you. I just don’t think it’s typical.

    • Who’s reveling? “Necessary” means that people have to sacrifice damn near everything—their values, their future, their lives—to protect and ensure the existence of a race, a nation, or core principles. I applaud your avoidance of pacifism, which is simply abdication from the accountability imposed by reality, but calling something that is necessary “evil’ makes no sense, logically or historically. The Civil War was necessary, and it was necessary to end the evil of slavery in American culture. World Wat II was necessary to stop two genocidal empires from taking over the world. The United States’ participation in that war was not evil.
      Soldiers who put their lives at risk for legitimate national goals deserve to be honored, especially by those who wouldn’t or couldn’t do the same. The same instinct that leads many to refuse to acknowledge their heroism makes people call police officer “pigs.” Keeping society functioning is dirty work, and those who do it for us deserve respect.and
      thanks.

  5. Jack,
    I can’t see how knowing I’m going to be remembered will provide me much consolation after I’m dead and unable to see it. There is no immortality, even in memory. The dead are dead. Heaven, hell, or nothing at all, they’re beyond caring what we choose to do or not to do in their honor. General Lee will earn my respect when he claws his way back from the great beyond. Until then, my feelings either good or bad in his regard don’t really matter.

    I’m not a nihilist, I just find it silly how often we’re told not to get too lost in nostalgia and regret whilst the same people will spend countless hours debating the merits of Pickett’s Charge or whatever else. The study of history is for personal edification, entertainment, and, if we’re lucky, a chance to learn from the mistakes of the past. It’s also ironic that it’s considered tacky to speak ill of the dead yet there’s no such condemnation of beatifying their to make it seem more heroic.

    Honestly, I think it’s our own squimishness about death that causes us to try and find mystical or allegorical connections with a past we’ll ultimately never know or understand. The present. Now. This is what matters most. However, as this debate is becoming increasingly philosophical and likewise esoteric, I’ll make this my last comment. If, however, you find yourself inclined to respond, I await your words with rapt anticipation. Best!

    -Neil

    • I feel the same way about this discussion as I do in arguments with people who say they find baseball boring, That’s their tragedy, in my view—something that has given me wisdom, perspective, inspiration, joy, entertainment and wonderful memories is lost to them, and they never can or will understand what. I’m sure it is also the way religious people feel discussing religion with non-believers. Or jazz lovers trying to explain it to me.

      Maybe it is my long background in theater, and love of myths, legends and folklore that feeds my fervent belief in the power of stories, lives and events to change lives. I don’t know. The infinite variety of the human mind and emotions is fascinating, and this is just another example, a very enlightening one.

  6. Something you might not be considering, Neil, is that learning the stories of those who are dead and gone can help you in the here and now. When I need more strength to face my own trials, I remember standing between Alonzo Cushing’s battery and the marker where Armistead fell at the Angle, learning how these two men and thousands of others at that spot sucked it in and did what they had to do, and I get some courage back of my own. If you’ve never been able to access their stories to help you in your own life – if you’ve never wished your own story might help someone in the future deal with theirs – I’m sorry, but don’t assume visiting these sites are useless to everybody else.

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