Gettysburg, 150

July 2, 2013 

Today, the Gettysburg battlefield is a national monument, one of the country’s most profound historic sites. Visitors can look for miles and miles and see nothing but fields, fences, a railroad cut, monuments from individual states. The monuments for the South and North, each state noting its losses, honoring those killed and wounded with eloquent, old-fashioned quotations, the granite and stone featuring, some of them, elaborate carvings.

A circular painting in the Gettysburg visitors’ site, a modern building, notes the details of the battle that was the fatal error of a general thought to be perfect, Robert E. Lee. But when Lee brought his Army of Northern Virginia to Pennsylvania, he was trying to take a definitive step by battling the Union in its own territory. It was July 1, 1863, and the outcome of the Civil War was far from certain.

Even now, in books this year, some historians speculate about what might have been. With a little luck (all generals need luck), a slight change in strategy here and there (not ordering the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge, for example) and perhaps a Cavalry maneuver that never came, the great “Marse Robert” might have won the battle.

But he did not, and the Lost Cause was lost.

Standing on those Pennsylvania hills is truly the only way to imagine what happened at Gettysburg. For more than 100 years, almost all visitors have come away with that conclusion. Many visitors from North Carolina have made the trip, and that is fitting. More than 14,000 North Carolinians fought in Gettysburg, and there were 6,000 casualties, more than one-fourth of all Confederate dead, wounded or missing.

Without being there, without staring up that hill with its boulders, it’s impossible to understand the logistics of the famous battle for “Little Round Top,” where Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his Maine troops successfully defended their hill after Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that will live in military and Civil War history and bring him the Medal of Honor.

And no film, no photograph, can capture the size, the length and width, of the field that would see Pickett’s Charge, the desperate attempt on the part of Confederates to overrun Union troops. The men in the battle knew, and soon, that this was not a strategy that would work, yet they charged gallantly on.

Yes, there were questionable decisions by generals at Gettysburg, but there was no shortage of courage on both sides.

Today, Gettysburg is a quiet and peaceful place. Its quaint downtown has many buildings still marked with bullet holes in now-historic buildings. Many residents make their livings off tourists, of course, but there is a sense of respect in the atmosphere not present in places near historic sites.

Visitors do not leave Gettysburg unchanged. They contemplate what might have been had the battle turned out differently. They search for the places where distant ancestors fought and died. They visit the graves of the unknown, and the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. In that sense, the town and the battlefield are still delivering the lessons of the costs of war, of the foolishness of this war, of the cruelty of the slavery that egged it on, of the sadness of so many casualties (50,000) and the possible consequences of a country torn permanently apart.

But it wasn’t torn, and it was reunited. This may have been the day that the war was lost, but the country was saved.

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