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.