"Sailors plan for safety. For escape. For survival. Sailors rely on plans, on strategies that have worked before. Trust me, most mariners are conservative. We stick to the tried and true." Randall Peffer, "Listen to the Dead"

Saturday, October 26, 2019

May We Never Go There Again

     When people say to me, "America is more polarized and divided than it has ever been," I say to them, remember the 1960s and Vietnam, or the 1950s and McCarthyism and desegregation. Think about the 1930s and the Depression and the police shooting union strikers in the street. And think about the Civil War.

     We've been divided before. And sometimes we need reminding: We don't want to become that divided again.

     B and I made a trip to Gettysburg last weekend. B told me she'd been there as a child, but didn't remember anything about it except a pleasant memory of her father leading her around by the hand. I had never been there before at all. But now I can tell you: It's a sobering experience.

A painting of the battle

     We went on an overcast day in October, so it wasn't too crowded. It was hot and humid for those three days in July 1863, when the battle took place, but somehow when we were there it seemed appropriate that the skies were cloudy and the air hung heavy with mist.

     We were told by friends to take the personalized tour. A guide gets in your car and drives you around the battlefield. You will learn a lot more than you will going on the bus tour, they said, and it will be a lot less confusing than the self-guided tour.

     The guide took us around the battlefield, which surrounds the town of Gettysburg, roughly following the chronology of the battle.

Looking down on the town of Gettysburg from the west

     On July 1, 1963, the Confederate army, commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee, arrived from the west. They had advanced up the Shenandoah Valley, essentially hiding from the Feds behind the mountains, and then cut northeast into Pennsylvania. Some units made it as far as the Susquehannah River. The Southerners hoped that an invasion of the North would demoralize the already war-weary Union, and perhaps persuade President Lincoln to come to the negotiating table and agree to a peace treaty that would leave the Confederacy intact.

     The North's Army of the Potomac, under General George Meade, rushed up from Washington, DC, to meet the challenge. The Confederates had numerical advantage that first day and pushed the Federal troops back, chasing them through the streets of town.

     By July 2, more Federal troops had arrived, and they formed a line along the high ground that ran east and south of town, called Cemetery Ridge. The ridge was anchored on the south by a small hill called Round Top, and an even smaller hill called Little Round Top.

Round Top on the right, Little Round Top on the left

     General Lee attacked, using a flanking maneuver. One group hit the Union right side. Another moved on the Union left, trying to take Little Round Top. During intense fighting, with both sides suffering terrible losses, a contingent of Confederates got caught in Devil's Den, below Little Round Top. Hundreds were mowed down by the Union forces above them.

Looking down on Devil's Den from Little Round Top

     Confederates took refuge on Seminary Hill, opposite the Union forces on Cemetery Hill. On July 3, Lee tried a flanking attack once again. When that was beaten back, he decided to risk everything on a frontal attack, right into the middle of Union lines. The Confederates spent several hours bombarding Union forces with canons, Then some 12,000 rebels advanced across the mile-wide open fields. At the center was a division led by Maj. Gen. George Picket. In an attack later known as Pickett's charge, one brigade breached Union lines. Soldiers fought with rifles and bayonets. For some it came down to hand-to-hand combat. But finally the rebels were beaten back. The Union had won.

First the Confederates used the canons, then they attacked across this field

     The next morning, July 4, Lee retreated south. General Meade followed, but failed to press the advantage, and so the Confederates were able to cross the Potomac River and head back to Virginia. The South was finished, but they didn't know it, as they still held out hopes for a peace treaty. The Civil War lasted almost two more years before General Ulysses S. Grant, who'd replaced Meade, took Richmond and forced Lee to surrender at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865.

A few of the graves in the nearby National Cemetery

     Of course, we know Lincoln was assassinated just a few days later, arguably the last victim of a war that killed more than 600,000 American volunteer soldiers -- including as many as 30,000 men who died from those three days at Gettysburg.


DJan said...

Very interesting history from the 1800s. Thanks for the tour. :-)

Arkansas Patti said...

Thank you for this Tom. I also went there as a child and while we had plaques to read, there weren't guided tours. It would have meant so much more. I just remember hearing there were over 20 thousand casualties with deaths, wounded and missing. That shocked my little mind.

Wisewebwoman said...

I took my dad and my kids there in the early eighties. Dad was always fascinated by the civil war and believed an ancestor had died in it.

We were completely fascinated and found the whole experience marvelous in how it was presented
a truly remarkably re-creation by all concerned, it brought it so much to life. I believe Ken Burns made a documentary on it also.

I'm glad you enjoyed it too. And in a world constantly at war, what's new? We have our own internal battles going on up here at the moment. None of it pleasant.


Snowbrush said...

"I say to them, remember the 1960s and Vietnam, or the 1950s and McCarthyism and desegregation. Think about the 1930s and the Depression and the police shooting union strikers in the street. And think about the Civil War."

And then there were the brutally suppressed union strikes in the years following WWI era, but with the exception of the Civil War, I really don't know if the division was on as large a scale than it is now. I was born in 1949, so I well remember the sixties, What was different then was the belief that a new and better world would emerge. I don't know that many people believe that anymore because our problems are getting bigger than we can handle even if the political will and the societal unity existed.

gigi-hawaii said...

Sad reminder, indeed.

Olga said...

Good reminder that great is always a matter of one's perspective.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid to say this but I think we are already involved in a civil war. Go to any rally or protest and you'll see the fighting being done on the streets. The media may not be reporting it adequately but the battles have begun. Try to wear a red baseball hat in public. Let strangers know who you support and watch the sparks fly. People are at each other's throats. Protesters are getting run over with cars, stabbed, punched, have urine or feces thrown in their faces or their homes are being pummeled.
It's just a matter of time before people pick up arms and start shooting.
Oops. That's already happened. Then be prepared for the potential victims to start fighting back.
Sounds like a civil war to me.
And this time, people will be fighting to their end.
Americans have had enough.
Of everything.

Anonymous said...

Nice history lesson, sometimes is good to be remembered of our nation's struggle to become what we are today. I took a month long trip this summer through few of the southern states where there are so many historical sites and I couldn't help by wonder how people back in those days were fighting in wars, walking for miles in hot, muggy climate and carrying the war equipment for miles and miles.I suppose that they had what we call grit, fighting for causes that they truly believed in. They may would have had horses and wagons, but I'm pretty sure many of them walked for days to get from one location to another.

I always tell people that America is still a very young country which still has a long way to go until is going to be fully matured. Just compare it with cultures that are thousands years in the making and still struggle to find unity. What I'm trying to say is that unity, although is a nice goal on paper, is one of those utopia concepts that are ever elusive to achieve in real life. People are going to agree and disagree, fight for different issues that are important to them and it's nothing wrong about that as long as the arguments and fights are non violent, respectful to everyone and ethical.

What bothers me these days is not the division but the tone used to advance points of view. I grew up in a communist country and that who wasn't with the communists, was against them, it was the enemy of people and subjected to jail, persecution and sometimes eradication like it never existed. The public discourse that I hear today in our society is so similar that it gives me creeps. This dichotomy of " you're either with me or you are my enemy" is so prevalent today and unfortunately that tone and demeanor is the big problem. Sometimes I get the feeling that some of the public figures are still at the kindergartner level flaunting arguments like " he pushed me first and I pushed him back" or " she started it, I didn't do it, I want to play with that toy now so I push you and grab it, etc ".- so immature :))

There is no easy path to maturity as we all know at this age and our country has to go through its own growing pains. What we can do though is to make sure that we, its constituents, don't transform it in a society where lack of character, hatred, and greed are becoming the defining qualities of our nation.I think we, as a nation, can learn to respect ourselves more and raise above the noise, regain our humanity and decency and set these as our defining qualities.

Thank you again for the lovely post, I put Gettysburg on my list.

Tom said...

Well Snowbrush, and first Anon. too, maybe I'm naive but I still think a new and better world will emerge. In fact, I'm more optimistic now than I was in the 1970s when we were running out of oil, suffering through Watergate and multiple recessions and worried about the population bomb and Three Mile Island. I predict (well ... hope ...) that science and recycling will save the planet, that we'll get some kind of sane gun regulation, that we'll continue to get more educated and live healthier lives, that over time racial, gender and all other types of discrimination will slowly fade away. If I didn't believe all that, how could I look my grandchildren in the eye?

Kay said...

I have been to Gettysburg a couple of times and felt a lot of anguish over the horrors of those days. We didn't have a tour then. I can see where that would have made it even more informative. I know the one thing my kids remember is seeing the bullets that were fused together since there were so many bullets being fired that time.

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! You are so right...WAR is sobering. And going to a place where so many people died is just that. We definitely felt that when we visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia over the Christmas holiday. Only about 50 years after that tragedy and the photos and commentary were mind blowingly sad. I REALLY wish we would learn... ~Kathy

Linda Myers said...

A good tour guide makes all the difference. I was at the 9/11 memorial earlier this week and it all came up again for me. We were aghast at the planes flying into the towers. But we do the same thing from time to time ourselves. How is it different?

I am also an optimist. I believe in the kindness of people, those I know and those I don't. In NYC this week I had multiple encounters with such people. I know we are better than we sometimes seem.

Snowbrush said...

When I lived in MIssissippi, I made a hobby of studying the nearby battle of Vicksburg, which the Yankees tried to take for a year before succeeding. Here in Oregon, there is no such history--there is hardly any history at all that I find greatly interesting. Just seeing your photo of a howitzer made me miss the South.

Barbara said...

As usual, a very interesting post. The Civil War is such a sad waste of life that I don't like to think about it. I do feel like we are somewhat close to a division like that but I am pretty sure we are to smart for that. At least I hope so.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

I love learning about history so thank you for the rundown on Gettysburg. I was at a conference near there in the late 80s but didn't have time to see it and was newly pregnant and feeling it. I wish I had, though. So interesting.

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