July 3, 2013
The good people of Indianapolis waited for the Presidential Funeral Train to stop in their city in the spring of 1865. When it arrived, decked in mourning colors and in Union bunting, they sent all the schoolchildren of the town past Abraham Lincoln’s bier first. They knew their children were their ambassadors to the future. They wanted them to remember always this experience.
So, when my son-in-law asked me if we could take his four-year old little boy, on our guided tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield, how would I deny him? And when one of our Family Research Council interns, a recent Georgia Tech grad, asked to go, too, how could I say no?
We arrived at the visitors center to meet Jim Cooke. Jim is a licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guide. We were excited to have this extraordinary opportunity to see the battlefield in the company of one so very knowledgeable. This week, the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the climactic battle of July 1-3, 1863, Gettysburg’s population will once again be overwhelmed by tens of thousands. They have come, tourists, descendants, re-enactors, media, politicians, a multitude.
Why? What was there about this place that attracts us so? It was here that Gen. Robert E. Lee sought to win a crushing victory over Union forces in a northern state. If Lee’s surging Army of Northern Virginia could win what military strategists call a victory of annihilation, on Northern soil, he believed the North would give up the effort to compel the South to return to the Union.
Gen. Lee had good reason for believing that. He was an avid reader of Northern newspapers. He knew that the people of the North, though they outnumbered the South two-to-one, and though they had vast material resources—including an overpowering Navy, were dispirited and divided.
Democratic Party politicians hated Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and incited mobs against Lincoln’s Republican administration. They charged Lincoln with fighting “a war for the Negro.” Railing against the military draft and the practice of allowing wealthy men to buy a $600 exemption, they claimed it was a rich man’s war.
Lincoln had the previous autumn (November 1862) relieved Gen. George McClellan from command of the federal Army of the Potomac. It was a high-risk action. McClellan clearly had the “slows.” The dashing, handsome, and politically influential young McClellan had repulsed Lee’s advance into Maryland at Antietam Creek, true, but he had failed to pursue Lee and his retreating Army of Northern Virginia as they re-entered Virginia.
Gen. McClellan’s officers even spoke darkly of turning the army on Washingtonand ending the civil war by negotiation. Lincoln had summoned one of them to the White House to answer for his loose talk of insubordination. Maj. John Key was a descendant of the Star-Spangled Banner’s author, Francis Scott Key. Maj. Key had openly endorsed the idea of the two armies forcing a settlement on the civilian government. Lincoln dismissed him from the Army on the spot.
McClellan’s successors—Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside and Gen. Joseph Hooker—had led the Army of the Potomac into two disastrous defeats at Fredericksburg (December 1862) and Chancellorsville (May 1863). Buoyed by those smashing victories, it is small wonder that Gen. Lee felt confident going into the North.
Our small group starts off the tour where Union Gen. John Reynolds died on the first day of the battle. We learn that the critical maneuver of that First Day was the holding action of Union Gen. John Buford’s cavalry. At Oak Ridge, Buford’s men, though outnumbered, prevented what could easily have become a Union disaster—as we had seen at First Manassas and Chancellorsville.
My grandson sports a Union blue kepi. He brandishes a cavalry sword and proudly says “sess-quee-sen-TENN-ee-yull.”. He’s a real Trooper this day, paying close attention to Jim Cooke, even if he (and we) sometimes find it difficult to follow all the complex military maneuvers that make up a Civil War engagement.
Jim Cooke takes us along Seminary Ridge, where the Confederate artillery is being readied for a massive bombardment. We pass through the Devil’s Den and mount Little Round Top. There, on the Second Day, major action takes place. We rehearse Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s heroics on Little Round Top. Embellished as the story has been, the fact is Chamberlain’s Twentieth Maine Regiment does hold off the Alabama Fifteenth. Those Alabamians, we learn, had been force-marched some thirty-five miles in the previous day. And at the critical moment, the Fifteenth Alabama had been ordered up Little Round Top without even re-filling their canteens.
Most thrilling for me is the addition of Benner’s Hill to the usual round of battle sites. Benner’s Hill is Northeast of Cemetery Ridge, the main Union force’s redoubt. This is where a nineteen-year old rebel artillery commander is being supported by the Fiftieth Virginia Infantry Regiment. My great-great-great Uncle Jonas Lipps serves in the Fiftieth.
The Fiftieth will not take part when Confederate Gen. Longstreet gives the crucial order to Gen. George Pickett to attack on the Third Day. What we know as Pickett’s Charge against the main body of the Union forces will end Lee’s boldest attempt to win the war in one crushing victory.
Southern author William Faulkner will write of Pickett’s Charge eighty years later.
“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....
What magnificent writing from this Nobel laureate. Yet, truth compels me to add: Not every Southern boy feels this way. Surely those Southern boys who are black do not yearn to reverse the outcome of Gettysburg.
And the great Civil War historian James McPherson gets it wrong, too, when he describes “a Victorian America” in the 1860s. That was precisely what we were not. And the Union victory at Gettysburg assured that we would not bow to Queen Victoria or any monarch.
When our little Trooper gets older, we’ll explain to him that Uncle Jonas was fighting on the rebel side. Jonas didn’t fight for slavery. He never owned any. But he did fight to keep Yankees from telling him what to do about slavery. And that was enough to bring death and destruction to America on an unprecedented scale.
Today, our most urgent task is to prevent another civil war. To our opponents, heroes defend the dismemberment of unborn children as a constitutional right. They reject Lincoln’s belief that “nothing stamped in the divine image was sent into the world to be trod upon.” And they also believe that what Lincoln called “that eminent tribunal,” the Supreme Court, must rule us in everything that matters. Those robed masters, we are told, must even hold sway over a government of the people, by the people for the people.
On this much, Faulkner had it right: The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.