There is a famous quote from William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust that says a lot about why the Battle of Gettysburg has such a hold on the American imagination:
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….
Faulkner was writing of a South in the 1930s still nearly prostrate from defeat in the Civil War — a region psychologically devastated, beat down by racism and inequality, where the hope for the future actually rested in the past. Allowing oneself to imagine victory in the space between the woods and Cemetery Ridge where 12,000 Confederate soldiers marched up a gently rolling hill into immortality answered the hopelessness of the times with the pathetic “what might have been” if Confederate soldiers had been able to breach the Union lines at the famous “angle,” split the Yankee force in two, and march on to Washington.
It was a mirage. Not enough guns, not enough men. All the courage in the world could not have brought the South victory that day. And the defeat proved far more costly than anyone in the South realized at the time. The Battle of Gettysburg destroyed once and for all the ability of Robert E. Lee to carry the war to the North. The loss of 28,000 soldiers (exact figures are hard to come by given poor recordkeeping) — the flower of the Confederate army — meant that Lee could no longer maintain the offensive. There were occasional offensive thrusts later on, but Lee’s victories for the last two years of the war were all tactical and won from fixed defensive positions, as Grant almost broke his army in two with frontal assaults against Lee’s lines.
So, in the end, Faulkner’s 14-year-old boy was chasing an illusion. But that illusion — of cavaliers and knights in shining armor winning the right by force of arms to live in a fairytale land that was built and run on the backs of human slaves — still affects us 150 years later.
Get over it already? Yes, there’s that. Dwelling on the sins of our past can be unhealthy for a country that rarely looks over its shoulder for anything or anybody. And there are those whose business it is never to allow us to forget slavery — not when political gain can be had and the guilt trip laid on fools and half-wits can force them to open their wallets and enrich those who were formerly oppressed.
But mention the word “Gettysburg” to the average American and they will certainly know of Lincoln’s famous address. But there is also what one might call a racial memory of the battle that inhabits a place in our minds we can only dimly reach. Over the next 10 days, several hundred thousand Americans who don’t know Longstreet from Reynolds will visit the Gettysburg National Park to take part in the observance of the 150th anniversary of that battle. They will be drawn by the need to be a part of an event that commemorates the turning point in our most devastating war. They will come, many with their children in tow, to absorb whatever lessons the men who fought and died on this parcel of Pennsylvania farm land can impart.
The highlight of the observance will come on Sunday, when 10,000 Civil War re-enacters will take part in a recreation of the battle. They will have paid their own way, provided their own props and uniforms, and fought the battle using the same tactics used by the combatants at the time. They will pray for cool weather given that their wool uniforms are incredibly uncomfortable. And many of them will probably weep, overcome with emotion during the re-enactment, as many of the 13,000 re-enactors wept during the filming of Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg.
Visitors — even those who know a little something of what transpired on those few square miles of ground — will tour the grounds as if it were a religious shrine. Speaking in hushed tones, sober, somber Americans will read the plaques, listen to the hugely knowledgeable park service employees as they relate interesting tidbits about the battle, and marvel at the courage demonstrated during the most famous battle in American history where the two sides came to death grips at a stone wall at the crest of a gently rolling hill known as Cemetery Ridge.
You ask yourself, “Could I have done what they did?” Could you have marched across the bloodiest 8/10 of a mile in America as Pickett’s men did? Could you have stood your ground while 12,000 screaming rebels were coming right for you? Trying to answer those questions tells us a lot about ourselves as individuals and Americans.
In John Keegan’s Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America, the author takes us on a journey into the distant past to fortresses and battlefields where once desperate men fought desperate actions in forgotten conflicts and where the battlefields have largely been reclaimed by nature. This will never happen with Gettysburg. It isn’t that 51,000 Americans on both sides were killed or wounded, or that it was a turning point in the war. Gettysburg will always be maintained as a living monument to our desire for freedom. It is a symbol of our commitment to liberty — forged in the blood of the Revolution and made flesh by the sacrifice of so many in Pennsylvania.
Perhaps that’s the most important echo from the battle that reaches us 150 years after the guns went silent and the dead were buried.