Independence Day With Ethics Alarms 2… Observations Upon Re-Watching “Gettysburg”

I began the Fourth of July this year by watching the last 90 minutes of “Gettysburg,” Ted Turner’s epic 1993 film.  My wife and I had begun watching on July 3, the date of Pickett’s Charge and the final day of the 1863 Civil War battle, but the more than four-and-a-half hour running time took me to Independence Day.

This was the extended version, the Director’s Cut, which adds 17 minutes of deleted  scenes to the version shown in movie theaters, itself one of the longest movies ever offered to the American public. We had last watched the un-extended film from beginning to end on a VHS tape almost 30 years ago.

Observations:

  • “Gettysburg” is an ethics movie, and a great one. I don’t know why this didn’t come through to me the first time I watched it. Primarily it celebrates the Seven Enabling Virtues discussed in yesterday’s post, but the film teaches us a lot about leadership, integrity, compassion, duty, loyalty, and conflicts of interest.

If the film isn’t routinely shown in schools, and I’m sure it isn’t, that is a lost opportunity. A whole course of study could be based on the film alone, and it would be more educational than most history courses.

  • Some of the added minutes extend the Pickett’s Charge re-enactment, and the length of the sequence adds to its horror and wonder. How could anyone enthusiastically follow orders to attempt such a deadly march into enemy artillery and rifle fire, while lined up like tin rabbits at a shooting gallery, in an open field, even having to climb over fences?

The film makes it clear, and this is accurate, that it was the men’s trust and admiration, almost worship, of Robert E. Lee that made such insane valor possible. At Gettysburg, Lee abused that trust. He was warned that the plan was madness, and he was so certain of his own invulnerability that he persisted.

  • The film made me realize that it is likely that Lee’s famous “It was all my fault!’ refrain to his returning shattered troops signified his realization that  his vanity and pride had been the direct cause for the Pickett’s Charge fiasco, and indeed the entire engagement. After the fiasco, the film shows Lee as a shattered man. General Longstreet, who repeatedly advises Lee to go around the Union entrenchment and take up a position on high ground between Pennsylvania and Washington, reminds Lee that even after the failed Confederate assault on Little Round Top on July 2, it is not too late for his plan to work. Lee replies that such a maneuver would be tantamount to a retreat, saying that he had never left the field of battle with the enemy  in control, and is not about to start.

If General Lee was capable of listening to what he was really saying, he would have realized that he was using a personal motive to justify a decision that could not be justified rationally. Continue reading

Third Of July Ethics Concert, 2020, Part 1: Pickett’s Charge, Custer’s First Stand, And More

Charge!

The anthemic music is the finale to the 1993 film Gettysburg, which has one of my all-time favorite scores, by Randy Edelman. I have worn out three CDs, and this particular selection, “Reunion and Finale,” almost lost me my drivers license once when I was playing it loudly in my car and blew past the speed limit by 25 mph or so.

I will be interested to see if any channel shows Ted Turner’s epic this weekend. I’m sure it is now regarded as politically incorrect because the film does not portray the Southern generals and soldiers as vicious racists, and the balance that the film was praised for when it was released is now regarded as “pro-Confederacy propaganda.” That is a fatuous take on the film, which is about human beings, not politics, and arguably the most historically accurate historical drama ever made, based on what may be the best historical novel ever written, “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara, just a wonderful book. Read it. You can thank me later.

Unlike July 2, one of the most significant dates in U.S. history with multiple major events, July 3 stands out for one momentous event. Even in the sequence of events leading to American independence, July 3 was relatively boring:  it was devoted to the debate over Jefferson’s Declaration, resulting in more than eighty additions and redactions.

July 3  was the final day of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, reaching its bloody climax in General Robert E. Lee’s desperate  gamble on a massed assault on the Union center. In history it has come to be known as Pickett’s Charge, after the leader of the Division that was slaughtered during it.

At about 2:00 pm this day in 1863, near the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg,  Lee launched his audacious stratagem to pull victory from the jaws of defeat in the pivotal battle of the American Civil War.  The Napoleonic assault on the entrenched Union position on Cemetery Ridge, with a “copse of trees” at its center, was the only such attack in the entire war, a march into artillery and rifle fire across an open field and over fence. When my father, the old soldier, saw the battlefield  for the first time in his eighties, he became visibly upset because, he said, he could visualize the killing field.

The battle lasted less than an hour. Union forces suffered 1,500 casualties,, while at least 1,123 Confederates were killed on the battlefield, 4,019 were wounded, and nearly 4000 Rebel soldiers were captured. Pickett’s Charge would go down in history as one of the worst military blunders of all time. Continue reading

July 3: A Day To Honor Custer’s FIRST Stand, At Gettysburg… And Reflect On How Our Greatest Strengths Can Be Our Fatal Flaws

custercharge

I wrote this post two years ago, concerning my favorite neglected episode of the Civil War, when young George Armstrong Custer shocked Confederate J.E.B. Stuart with his unexpected and furious resistance to Stuart’s attempt at disrupting the Union flank while Gen. Meade’s army defended itself against Pickett’s Charge. As with the First Minnesota’s suicidal stand on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Custer’s crucial moment of truth has been largely neglected in the assembly of the battle’s heroes; I don’t think it has ever been depicted in a Civil War film, for example, though there is at least one book about it.

The incident is especially fascinating to me because of the its multiple ironies. Custer succeeded when his nation needed him most because of the exact same qualities that led him to doom at the Little Big Horn years later. Moreover, this man who for decades was wrongly celebrated in popular culture as an American hero for a shameful botched command that was the culmination of a series of genocidal atrocities actually was an American hero in an earlier, pivotal moment in our history, and almost nobody knows about it.

Thus it is that among the brave soldiers of the Blue and Gray who should be remembered on this 150th anniversary of the greatest battle ever fought on this continent is a figure whose reputation has sunk to the depths, a figure of derision and ridicule, a symbol of America’s mistreatment of its native population. Had George Armstrong Custer perished on July 3, 1863, he might well have become an iconic figure in Gettysburg history. The ethics verdict on a lifetime, however, is never settled until the final heartbeat. His story also commands us to realize this disturbing truth: whether we engage in admirable conduct or wrongful deeds is often less a consequence of our character than of the context in which that character is tested.

Here is the post, slightly lengthened:

July 3, 1863 was the date of Pickett’s Charge, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered a desperate Napoleonic advance against the Union line at Gettysburg in what has come to be a cautionary tale in human bravery and military hubris. The same day marked the zenith of the career of George Armstrong Custer, the head-strong, dashing cavalry officer who would later achieve both martyrdom and infamy as the unwitting architect of the massacre known as Custer’s Last Stand. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: Who Is More Unethical…the Coward Who Left His Girlfriend and Child to Die, Or the Girlfriend Who Agreed To Marry Him Anyway?

Would an ethical woman marry George?

I am a great fan of the old Seinfeld show in general and the George Costanza character in particular (all ethicists love George, who  exemplifies how messed up a life without ethical instincts can be), but I didn’t laugh at the episode when he smelled smoke at kids’ birthday party and trampled the children as he escaped in panic from the apartment. And that was just a TV sitcom; the actions of Jamie Rohrs, the Colorado man who ran out of the Aurora movie theater when James Holmes started shooting and drove away in his truck, leaving behind his girlfriend and her two young children—one of whom was fathered by him— go beyond unfunny to revolting. Luckily, and no thanks to Rohrs, Patricia Legaretta and her kids did not die, because a stranger, Jarell Brooks, helped them escape the theater and the massacre.

Then comes the rest of the story, revealed to Piers Morgan on CNN: after his act of aggravated cowardice, Rohrs had the gall to propose to the mother of his child, and Legaretta, incredibly, accepted.

Your Ethics Quiz:

Who is more unethical—Legaretta, or Costanza, er, Rohrs? Continue reading

Custer, Gettysburg, and the Seven Enabling Virtues

Sometimes the Enabling Virtues will save an army, and sometimes they’ll get you killed.

July 3, 1863 was the date of Pickett’s Charge, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered a desperate Napoleonic advance against the Union line at Gettysburg in what has come to be a cautionary tale in human bravery and military hubris. The same day marked the zenith of the career of George Armstrong Custer, the head-strong, dashing cavalry officer who would later achieve both martyrdom and infamy as the unwitting architect of the massacre known as Custer’s Last Stand.

Custer’s heroics on the decisive final day of the Battle of Gettysburg teach their own lessons, historical and ethical. Since the East Calvary Field battle has been thoroughly overshadowed by the tragedy of Pickett’s Charge, it is little known and seldom mentioned. Yet the truth is that the battle, the war, and the United States as we know it may well have been saved that day by none other than undisciplined, reckless George Armstrong Custer. Continue reading