Stuy’s Sunday Side – Gettysburg: A Turn of History, in Horror and Glory

People, being what they are, inevitably tend toward conflict; nations, being assemblies of people, inevitably tend toward war.

John Kennedy’s admonition for mankind to put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind is heeded no more today than when he delivered it in the most dangerous days of the Cold War.1 It lays with the other warnings — throughout history 2  — as blood soaked into fetid fields of battle and the saddened souls of soldiers receded to their encampments.

And next to the warnings never heeded lays glory — Lincoln’s “serpent’s eye that charms to destroy”3 — rising after bodies are buried and headstones are laid; assuaging grief and, albeit poorly, attempting to justify a slaughter of men for the history of mankind.

In Gettysburg, fought 150 years ago this week, we commemorate both the warning and the glory.

Thousands lay dead over three days of battle: a victory for the Union, a loss for the Confederacy, and a catastrophe for the multitudes. The contemporary accounts of the bloodshed read as if they are describing the most reckless slaughterhouse, the horror compounded by knowing that the writers were newspaper men simply reporting what they saw.4

But there was glory, too.

Gettysburg5

Gettysburg was the last best hope of the Confederacy. It was Lee’s maneuver to reach an armistice with a spear aimed at the heart of the Union. Had Lee succeeded, the war might well have ended in stalemate with two closely related – but different – countries dividing the width of the country we now know.

The “America” we now know would be, instead, the “USA” and “CSA”. Reconstruction would have been become simple poverty as each nation – embittered enemies – erected protectionist trade barriers tempered with the hard steel of animus. Manifest destiny would be not just hindered but perhaps altogether impossible. The Westward Expansion might have become a competition, with each sovereign country seeking advantage and, possibly, engaging in later wars. The CSA might have joined Spain in the Spanish-American War to avoid exposing its southern flank to Union forces in Cuba. World War I might even have been waged partly in North America, between North and South, as the Union aided the Triple Entente and the Confederacy aided Germany and the other Central Powers.

The world we know today would have looked very different, indeed.

But all those prospects ended over the course of those horrible three days in a field outside Gettysburg.

On the third day,  Lee’s tactical blunder ended in strategic catastrophe.  History’s last great infantry charge – over 12,000 men — was ground to a trickle by the withering roar of grapeshot, canister and rifle fire. Those handfuls of Confederates who survived the mile across the battlefield in Pickett’s Charge found themselves prisoners, sent to spend the rest of the war in places like Elmira, New York, and Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

There would be other battles and other days, of course. The war would grind on for nearly another two years, with victories, stalemate and defeat. But there would be no further chance for armistice in which the Confederate government could set the terms. From there, the Confederacy was on death watch; the question being not “whether” — but “when”– it would be subsumed by the power of the Union.

The glory of those men who gave their “last full measure of devotion” is that the different world that was the object of Lee’s battle plan– that world we never came to know; that balkanized version of America that would be so alien as to make the unique and honored experience of America and Americans in the 20th Century impossible – never came to pass.

Hans Morgenthau, the historian and foreign policy philosopher once wrote, “”We expect of certain nations certain deeds, for we have read in their past deeds a purpose to which we expect future deeds to conform.”5 Of all those fights and causes that have come since those three days 150 year ago – from Belleau Wood to Normandy; from the Berlin Airlift to Inchon, from those we rescued from Saigon to the Liberation of Kuwait and to the ousting of Saddam Hussein – all were expected of us; all were required of us; all were what we are as a nation and a people and an ideal.

The United States- the indispensible nation of the 20th Century — only came to be because thousands of brave men gave their time, their limbs, their honor and their lives to protect it over three terrible days a century and a half ago, in a “new birth of freedom” at a critical turn of history.

And in that, among all those dead and among all those horrors – in a field in Pennsylvania — lay glory, where it belongs.

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© 2013, The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy.  All right reserved.


  1. Address before the United Nations, September 25, 1961. The full quote was, “Mankind must put an end to war — or war will put an end to mankind.” 

  2. See, e.g., Galatians 5:15, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” 

  3. “Trusting to escape scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory, that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy, he plunged into war.”  Representative Abraham Lincoln, on President James T. Polk. The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 2, Page 14. 

  4. As an example, this: “Upon the battlefield in rear of the Seminary we witnessed at least as many as five hundred Rebel dead bodies, lying in every conceivable position, and emitting a perfume anything but agreeable. —Philadelphia Inquirer, July 8, 1863 

  5. Hans Morgenthau, The Purpose of American Polities 

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