Gettysburg Day Three: On Courage
Everything really hit me Saturday afternoon when I was standing on the Union line, just to the right of the famous “copse.” That’s the umbrella-shaped group of trees that was the focal point for the Confederacy’s final, doomed offensive of the Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett’s charge.
I’d read about it. Listened to a lecture about it. And on the previous two and a half days of the Alumni Association’s Civil War Study Tour, I’d stood on other famous parts of the Gettysburg battlefield. But something about standing on the low stone wall, gazing out at the open field made everything real.
That’s partly a tribute to the National Park Service. The fields have been restored so that my view was the same as the soldiers had on July 3, 1863. We had also stood at the Point of Woods, where Robert E. Lee had watched the battle and apologized to his men after their retreat, and I saw what he had seen. My vantage point on the Union line gave me yet another appreciation for the subtleties of the battlefield—the “high ground” doesn’t have to be a mountain or even a hill, but simply a ridge or a knoll. It’s a big difference.
I tried to imagine being one of the Confederate soldiers on the attack. They were walking across a wide-open field, directly into the Union line. No cover. Nowhere to hide. Fences—required, by law, to be strong enough to restrain a bull—to clamber over. No chance to pull down one of those. As one of our faculty leaders, Terry Winschel ’77 pointed out, you can’t fire your musket while you’re climbing over the top rung of a fence, so you’re totally defenseless.
I’m not that brave. I don’t have it in me.
And while the Union held the high ground, those soldiers didn’t have it easy. They watched as 13,000 men, armed, advanced on them. They didn’t move. They held the line, even when fired upon.
In our “morning briefing,” faculty leader Parker Hills had told us that two things are contagious on a battlefield: courage and cowardice. On this tour, we’ve learned about so many examples of courage, and the third day of the Battle had so many examples. Two that stuck with me:
—Union Lt. Alonzo Cushing, severely wounded in the gut, who refused to leave his post because his cannon was ready to fire. Holding in his bowels, he shouted, “I’ll give one last shot,” and then he died when a bullet whizzed through his open mouth.
—Union Capt. James Postles, who volunteered to make two trips from the Union line into the middle of the field to give orders to a team of sharpshooters at Bliss’ farm. The Confederates were so impressed that when Postles reached safety (relative, I mean) for the second time and doffed his hat, they cheered.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Medal of Honor was created during the Civil War.
I’m still processing it all, but I’m in good company. I’ve met people on this study tour who have walked the Gettysburg battlefield 50, 60, even 100 times or more, and they’re still digesting what happened here.
When I was preparing for the trip, I didn’t understand that. Why are so many drawn to this place? Now I realize that there are so many lessons to be learned from Gettysburg—and, unbelievably, so many questions as yet unanswered about the battle—that it makes perfect sense that people return repeatedly and read about it voraciously.
And this is just one battle of the Civil War, a pivotal moment in American history. I can’t write a series of Gettysburg blogs without quoting from one of history’s most magnificent pieces of writing, the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln wrote 273 perfect words. Here are a few of them. They explain the stakes:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. …
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it. …
We here highly resolve that these dead shall not die in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.
When the military speaks of casualties, they mean the number of soldiers killed, mortally rounded, wounded, or missing. The totals for Gettysburg: Union Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac: 22,813. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia: 22,874. That’s just under 46,000 people.
“Look at what that did to our gene pool,” Parker said. He wasn’t joking. “Think what bright, brave people went out there and didn’t come back,” he continued. “It’s just horrific to think about.”
But necessary, too.
Lori Shontz, senior editor