Monday, June 27, 2005

25: “..The Vision-place of Souls”

A very good friend of mine has his own blog and a website, both dedicated to the Battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War. (see the link on the sidebar that leads to The Battle of Gettysburg and the American Civil War Blog, and right under it, a link to his website “The Brothers War”. Both are well worth your time.)

My friend posted an essay tonight on his blog that sounds a deep and meaningful theme that people seem to forget. Folks come to Gettysburg for a reason, and more often than not, that reason has to do with the battle that was fought here. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the battlefield every year, and some years that number rises above a million. At the end of his essay, my friend has a quotation from one of the more notable personages who visited the battlefield repeatedly over the years. His name was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Chamberlain is notable not just because he commanded the 20th Maine Infantry on July 2 at Little Round Top, but also for what he did after that. In 1864, while leading an advance on Confederate defenses in Virginia, Chamberlain stood in front of his advancing units to direct where they were to go. The attack was futile, as the Confederates had an extremely well entrenched position. Chamberlain was shot through both hips, and the bullet nicked his bladder. After he was struck he directed his men while leaning on his sword. He sank to his knees, and continued to direct his men. Finally, unable to continue, he slumped to the ground, and was eventually carried to the rear and to treatment. Severely wounded and almost given up for dead, this tough “Down Easter” rallied himself and returned to command a Corps in the Army of the Potomac in 1865. He distinguished himself in that role as well. At Appomattox, he was given the honor of accepting the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, and while doing so, ordered his command to salute the Confederates as they marched in to lay down their arms, and their colors. Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College before the war, went on to be elected 6 times as governor of Maine. For his actions at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Some modern historians point to the fact that no one promoted Chamberlain’s war record after the war more than Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Indeed, he wrote several books, poems, and made countless visits to the Civil War battlefields where he fought, but Gettysburg had an attraction for him that was compelling. He kept returning here almost annually for decades after the war. When he spoke to veterans, or about the war, he spoke of Gettysburg. Regardless of his self-promoting tendencies, he was a courageous leader, and he certainly recognized the importance of what the Army of the Potomac did during the war. Most of all, however, he recognized the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg.

For the first time in two years, the Army of the Potomac totally frustrated Robert E. Lee and his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. For the first time in two years, the Union troops severely hurt Lee’s army. Unlike Antietam, nearly a year earlier, which was no complete victory for the Army of the Potomac, the Battle of Gettysburg was as near a total success as any battles the Army of the Potomac fought before, or after. Lee was forced to take his shattered army on a long retreat back to Virginia after Gettysburg, and he suffered almost 27,000 men killed, wounded, or captured. Losses like that were losses that Lee could not afford. In the Gettysburg area, some of the names and events are legendary, from the sudden mastery by the Army of the Potomac’s young “boy generals” -- Custer and Merritt -- over James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart’s cavalry, to the individual valor of regimental commanders like Colonels Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin, Colvill of the 1st Minnesota, and Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, to the leadership of the “Old Man of the Army” Brigadier General George Sears Greene, who single-handedly defended the high crest of Culp’s Hill from ferocious attacks by two full Confederate Divisions, with only a single small brigade, and to Generals Buford, Reynolds, Howard, and Hancock, who all agreed on July 1st that the place for the Army of the Potomac was on the “fishhook line” from the Round Tops, north on Cemetery Ridge, over Cemetery Hill, and across the crest of Culp’s Hill.

All of this takes nothing away from the men of the Army of Northern Virginia. It is hard to imagine a tougher, harder fighting, more courageous force ever assembled, and much of the success the Union had against them here is due to the judgment of the generals on the first day in the selection of the ground where they would fight. In fact, the quality of the Confederates at Gettysburg serves to point out the extreme competency, and high quality of the men of the Army of the Potomac. Other than two small raids later in the war, Lee never again took his army out of Virginia. Further, the losses he experienced here at Gettysburg were a harbinger of things to come, and in terms of leadership, severely diminished his command structure.

Lee was a remarkable general, but there were two things he could not do. He could not amass new soldiers to replace his losses at a fast enough rate to beat the attrition game, and he could not replace the experienced colonels, Brigadier, Major and Lieutenant Generals he was losing at every battle. From the Battle of Gettysburg on, Lee was in a war of attrition from which he knew he could derive no success other than to buy time in hope of affecting a political end to the war.

Strategically, the fall of Vicksburg on the day Lee retreated from Gettysburg held more immediate significance to the Union war effort. As Lincoln said on hearing of the end of the siege there, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." The fall of Vicksburg signaled the doom of the South, for finally, the Union had completely surrounded the Confederacy, and was able to supply Union forces anywhere. Gettysburg, however, signaled the doom of the Army of Northern Virginia, where the “political war” was fought, in the east, in Virginia. That war, which was principally fought by the two armies between the two capitals, was the part of the war that got into the press. The Battle of Gettysburg's significance was felt in the Confederate capital of Richmond every bit as much as the dearth of food the previous winter, and the “Bread Riots” less than three months before the battle here.

No matter how much Chamberlain beat his own drum after the war, no one can take from him the fact that he successfully led his men in a desperate fight to protect the left flank of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg on July 2. Chamberlain knew the Gettysburg Battlefield must be preserved, and it must be done with dignity. The desperate struggle of over 150,000 men over three days here was, in essence, a microcosm of the entire Civil War. He knew it, and so did President Lincoln. Dig out his Gettysburg Address and see for yourself. The words of Lincoln’s address could just as easily have been said at any Civil War battlefield, from the three day Battle of Gettysburg, to the smallest skirmish between patrols of cavalry along some dusty Georgia road. And they would be just as applicable.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain wrote some words that my friend placed at the end of his latest essay. I hope you will read those words, and take from them the concept that the Battle of Gettysburg does not end at the Park boundary; that the reason people come here is to honor those who fought here, and to learn about how and why they did.

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3 comments:

Randy said...

If new to the American Civil War, reading this only whets the appetite and stirs a sense of growing wonder. If a long time fan, you fondly remember why you began this journey. For the sake of both and for those yet to discover their history, these fields must be preserved. For the honor of those whose memory and stories they obediently keep, they must be preserved. The fields and monuments, lives and deeds, are precious gifts our ancestors offered to all who would yet come. What they asked in return was to not be forgotten. Once discarded, these treasures will be irretrievably, tragically sacrificed to the loss of us all.

"...we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Abraham Lincoln
September 19, 1863
A portion of the Gettysburg Address

Anonymous said...

What is going on! We vote a majority Republican Legislature in to assure fiscal responsibility and they end up lining their own pockets with gold! Talk about greed! It's almost like they and the governor are in bed together!

GettysBLOG said...

They ARE in bed together. It isn't politics that makes strange bedfellows, its greed.