A few months ago I read the Civil War novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. A non-fiction work, this is a historical account of the battle of Gettysburg that is written in the style of a novel where characters develop and intimacy, flaws, and achievement are revealed as the novel progresses. After having read it I can understand why historians call this book one of the greatest novels about the Civil War.
The Civil War is not a part of history I understand well but I have written about the Gettysburg Address on this blog before, and remain fascinated by President Lincoln’s address dedicating the cemetery where fallen soldiers were interred. Rarely in history has so much been said in so few words, which served to define a war of a different kind that had cost so high a price in terms of death and destruction.
In 3 days of battle over 50,000 men died on the field of battle in a war that was a first in modern history. The Civil War was not a war for land or wealth but for liberty and it is also worth highlighting that each side fought for a cause dear to them. As the generals and notable participants are revealed in this account it is clear the divide remained as stark at Gettysburg as it was in the years preceding this pivotal battle.
The North fought for the cause of liberty, individual liberties all men are endowed with. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (which in those days was another way of saying prosperity as a result of self-determination and freedom, rather than what we mean by “happiness” today). The South fought for principles they associated with the founding of the country not 70 years prior, that of a federal republic where states have a strong hand in their governance relative to a less empowered Federal government. It is ironic how the same debate inspires similarly impassioned debate today.
However, what struck me most profoundly about Shaara’s account is how war between friends is so unsettling. The generals in this war, with the exception of General Lee, were relatively young men in their late 30’s and 40’s, as opposed to the elder soldier statesmen we associate with military leadership today. When promoted to Major General in 1862 Armstrong Custer was just 23 years of age, a West Point graduate with little command experience. General Lee had been in the Army for 35 years when Virginia voted to secede, a move he did not support but his allegiance to his home state compelled him to turn down Lincoln’s offer to command the northern army. Today, Arlington Cemetery occupies land that once belonged to General Lee.
Other generals did have substantial command experience and traditional military education, and what is most remarkable is how these men went their separate ways leading up to the war and ended up fighting each other yet never gave up on their friendships. Perhaps most touching is the story of Generals Armistead and Hancock of the South and North respectively. Sensing the enormity of the battle ahead of him, Armistead asked General Longstreet, Gen Lee’s second in command, for permission to visit Hancock in the event either of them should fall in battle.
This war separated friends, family, and neighbors as much as a country. To find oneself on a battlefield facing men who are of the same origins must have been surreal.
The other aspect of this battle that I found unsettling is how far north the South had advanced and if Gettysburg had a different outcome we might be living in a different history. A few days march from Philadelphia, had General Lee succeeded the North would have been ill prepared to defend the seat of government and Philadelphia would have been over-run. The South was organized and lethal as a military force, owing as much to the charisma and leadership qualities of General Lee as to the ability to equip and project a force offensively.
Lee’s strengths ultimately proved to be his downfall and it is said that Gettysburg is the price the south paid for having Lee as the commanding general. Poor communication, loyalties to inferior officers and an unwillingness to adapt to a modern military doctrine, which remains the template for warfare today and was, ironically, put forward by one of his own generals, Longstreet, resulted in defeat and a 2 year retreat that ended in surrender.
This was a horrible war and the battle itself resulted in carnage that sent shockwaves around the world. The carnage of modern weaponry was left bare on the battlefield and the scale of it was unprecedented. 50,000 men over 3 days. That is almost as much as the entire losses suffered in the Vietnam War with a population much larger than in the 1860’s.
Perhaps this is why we remember Gettysburg as much as D-Day and other seminal battles, the cost was so high in the pursuit of victory, and this is why moments like the Gettysburg Address resonate so profoundly in us.