Today in 1863: “On great fields, something stays.”

3 Jul

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” — Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s address at the dedication of the 20th Maine monument.

150 years ago today, the Battle of Gettysburg ends at the cost of 51,000 casualties from both armies. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Robert E. Lee, invaded the north late in June. The Army of Northern Virginia had successfully repulsed the Union Army on multiple occasions, and the situation was perilous. If Lee destroyed the Union Army of the Potomac in the north, there would be nothing to prevent him from continuing on to Washington, and ultimately, the breaking off of the Confederate states forever.

On July 1, 1863, Union Cavalry encountered Confederate Infantry just outside Gettysburg, setting off what would be a three-day engagement with horrific losses. By the end of the first day, most of both armies had converged outside Gettysburg and the Union held the high ground. On July 2nd, Lee ordered assaults which were tactically unsuccessful but very costly for the Union army.

Lee’s next move is inexplicable, given his experiences at Fredericksburg (which, essentially, was Gettysburg in reverse and happened not VERY long before). On July 3rd, he ordered a Napoleonic charge at the Union center, which he believed to be vulnerable. The assault, which later was known as Pickett’s Charge, sent divisions under Gen. Longstreet over a mile of open field under heavy fire from Union guns on the high ground. In the end, the Army of Northern Virginia was only briefly able to break the Union center. They were soundly defeated and sustained heavy losses. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s army retreated south. The Confederacy would never recover.

The Civil War Trust has been live-tweeting the event, and their feed is really worth a scroll-through for a good narration of the action. The Smithsonian also has a really snazzy interactive post on their website that walks you through the battle and allows you to see the ground. For more on Gettysburg, be sure to check out the Civil War Trust’s page.

I was up at Gettysburg this last weekend to kick off the 150th festivities. On Sunday night, the Park Service along with the Gettysburg Foundation held a commemorative service which included a dramatic account of the battle narrated by actors reading eye-witness accounts, Trace Adkins singing the national anthem, speeches by Charlie Gibson and Doris Kearns Goodwin (author of Team Of Rivals), and an illumination of the graves of the Union soldiers’ graves at Soldiers National Cemetery, lead by the Old Guard (widely known as the US Army Infantry Regiment which guards the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington).

Being there on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the battle was like being on one side of a one-way mirror; I could see everything. The nearness was palpable, I was inexorably tied to what happened, but could not touch it or hold it in my hands or change it. Standing there on that field, where the beauty, peace, and calm belied strife of a century past, I was a witness. And I understood more completely than ever before the words of Pres. Abraham Lincoln:

“… we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” — Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

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