Monday, July 04, 2005

27: “Aftermath: Independence Day, 1863”

It is 6:00 PM on the afternoon of July 4, 1863. After three days of pitched battle, during which the Army of Northern Virginia threw itself against the Army of the Potomac, approximately 51,000 Americans have been killed, wounded, or captured. The once fertile farms along Emmitsburg Road, Chambersburg Pike, Hanover Street, and the Carlisle and Harrisburg Pikes are strewn with the detritus of war. The streets of Gettysburg are crowded with the men of Ambrose Powell Hill’s Third Corps, Army of Northern Virginia on the west and south sides, and on the east end by the men of Jubal Early’s and Robert E. Rode’s Divisions of Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps.

Covering those fields are broken up wagons, and ambulances, artillery caissons, limbers and gun carriages, canteens, packs, cartridge boxes, broken rifles, and of course, the toll among the living: many of the wounded still lay where they fell, as do the dead. Thousands of horses and mules also dot the landscape, some wounded, most dead.

All the barns for miles around are full of the wounded and the dying, and outside them are those that are already dead, and next to the line of soldiers who have yet to be treated are piles of limbs sawn from human bodies because they were too shattered to patch up. Retreat from the wound, and make your incision in healthy flesh and bone, leaving extra flesh to provide a flap to close the wound after the amputation.

Already, General Robert E. Lee has contacted his Union counterpart, Major General George Gordon Meade, and offered to exchange prisoners. Meade has declined. It has been raining most of the day. The rain would continue for many days, almost as if nature was attempting to wash clean what 150,000 men had done to her, and to each other, at Gettysburg. Lee is shaken by what has happened to his vaunted troops over the previous three days. He has been repulsed with heavy losses by a commander who has only been in command less than a week. The Yankees did not turn and run. They stayed and held their ground, and it was good, advantageous ground. They held the heights. He had not wanted to fight here, but his men had stumbled into it, and driven the enemy from the field on the first day. But “those people” as he calls them, simply went south of town and took position on the heights there, and Lee had attacked all along their line. Not a single one of his nine divisions escaped unscathed. His losses amounted to almost a full third of his army, most never to return. They would be, like all the losses, irreplaceable. It would be time to order the men to prepare for the journey back to Virginia soon.

Across the way on the high ground, George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac since the 28th of June, wasn’t quite sure of Lee’s intentions. His troops had detected no preparations for a renewed assault, nor did it appear that Lee was packing up to leave. Yet the offer to exchange prisoners certainly meant there would be no more fighting, at least for this Independence Day. Was Lee inviting attack? Even with the horrible losses they had taken on the past three days, they were still, in a word, dangerous. In comparison, while his force had experienced heavy losses as well, they were not as severe as Lee’s were. But his army was somewhat disorganized, mainly from the piecemeal way commanders grabbed regiments and brigades to plug gaps in the lines. They were tired – battle weary, hungry, dirty, and in need of hot food, and cool water, but most of all, rest. Though he was leery of what the old fox across the way was up to, he was grateful for the respite from three days of absolute carnage. He had decisions to make. He must begin to formulate a plan for an assault on Lee’s forces on Seminary Ridge, if he was still there in the morning. He must also hope that young General Wesley Merritt would be able to cut off the road through the village of Fairfield 8 miles to the southwest, to deny Lee that shorter route over South Mountain and back to the Potomac River. Meade already missed the severely wounded Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, and the dead John Fulton Reynolds, one of the best friends he had in the army, and one of the army’s prized generals. He would not miss that devil Sickles. Meade decides to gather his generals that evening and postpones the decision of what to do until then.

Most of the wounded have been gathered, and some of the dead have been buried in hastily dug graves right where they fell. Those who fled the fighting are rounded up and returned to their units.

In the aftermath of this battle, the two commanders were struggling with decisions on what to do next. What were their paths leading away from Gettysburg? For Lee, the path would end with his death in 1870, and a place in American history among the nation’s most effective, and beloved leaders. Meade, however, was victimized by a scoundrel of the first order named Daniel Sickles. Until he died two years after Lee, Meade fought to clear his name, accused of almost losing the Battle of Gettysburg, by Sickles, a pre-war congressman of some ill-repute, and initially vilified by Lincoln for not pursuing Lee’s retreat more aggressively. Lincoln never fully trusted him again, and although he never had enough cause to remove him from command of the Army of the Potomac, a position he would hold to the end of the war, he saw fit to place him under the command of Ulysses S. Grant at the end of 1863, and allowed Grant to have his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac. This unusual arrangement left Meade as only the titular head of the army, as Grant would issue the orders to the end.

Because this was a Civil War, and not an international one, some people feel it was not as important as, say, World War One, or World War II, or Korea. Because the enemy of either side were Americans, it is hard to generate a feeling of antipathy for either, or to deny a feeling of empathy for both. But it was of extreme importance to all of us, perhaps the most important to us since it gave us the form of the nation we have today.

Regardless of which side one favors in the American Civil War, one most realize that based on the outcome in April of 1865, the path away from Gettysburg started by both Lee and Meade, leads directly to where we are today. The Civil War gave America a national identity and a respect around the world. We were no longer the former colonies of Great Britain, but were now the United States of America, a title adopted some 90 years prior to the end of the Civil War.

Gettysburg was the largest battle of the American Civil War, and no one paid homage to the battle here more eloquently than did President Abraham Lincoln in his November dedicatory address at the National Cemetery. The battle here indeed gave the nation “…a new birth of freedom…”.

A new birth of freedom for a nation founded on the principles of the Rights of Man, and his inalienable right to freedom. We first had to fight the British for those rights, and then we had to fight ourselves. One of the most significant places we engaged in that fight was right here at Gettysburg. Lincoln knew how important the battle here was, and what it meant to the nation. Just read his address.

No community with a heritage that deeply important to the entire nation should have that heritage cheapened by the tawdriness of a gambling establishment. It is not what Gettysburg has been known for over the past 142 years, nor is it what Gettysburg should be known for any time in the future.

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