Monday, July 1, 2013

The Garden of Memory: Gettysburg

What did the gardens of Gettysburg look like on the first day of July as Confederate troops marched toward that quiet town from Chambersburg, PA,which one of their units had left in flames in reprisal for Federal burnings in the Shenandoah Valley?
Would they have looked like New England fields and woodlands? June roses aglow on some vines, fading on others? Daylilies dancing in borders along picket fences or in roadside ditches? Blue hydrangea. White daisies with yellow centers. Wild strawberries ripe in meadows, raspberries coming into season in the thickets, the woodlands thick with the dark green of the fully leaved hardwoods, fireflies dancing in the night.
In American history, the first week of July belongs to the Garden of Memory, never more so than this year, the 150th anniversary of the three days when the "high tide of the Confederacy" came crashing down into disaster in both the epic battle of Gettysburg and the surrender of Vicksburg that gave control of the Mississippi to a Union army commanded by Ulysses S. Grant.
On July 4th the nation celebrates its founding by the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, brave words from brave and often brilliant men that framed the idea of a new independent nation based on popular government that seven years of war would turn into a reality.
And in the first days of July of 1863 the great battles were fought in the East and concluded in the West that preserved the idea of a nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Preservation of the Union was not a foregone conclusion.Things could have gone differently once the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North following two savagely decisive victories over the larger but ineptly led Army of the Potomac. In the waning days of 1862, Robert E. Lee's army slaughtered waves of Union infantry sent by General Burnside to attack fortified positions in Fredericksburg, Va. In the spring of 1863, Lee's brilliant corps commander Stonewall Jackson executed a daring flanking maneuver through deep forests to fall on the rear of the Union army commanded by Joseph Hooker at Chancellorsville, sending the Yankees into a demoralized retreat.
At Gettysburg, under competent, but brand new commander George Meade, the Union army held to its well chosen positions, sometimes by the skin of its teeth, against Confederate attacks, forcing Lee into a final throw of a dice in the suicidal assault on strongly held Union center and suffer a costly and crushing defeat. The South would never again have the resources to seize the initiative in battle, though the war dragged on for almost two more increasingly destructive years.
Gettysburg, in the form of the myriad accounts (and one unforgettable "address") given to the three-day clash of military titans, is the American Iliad, the battle that will never be forgotten. Part of reason that a war or battle is unforgettable is that no one with a heart and a pulse would have wished it to be fought.
Everything that happened in previous Civil War battles was reprised at Gettysburg: The two massive armies blundering blindly into one another. The withering open field assaults that ran first one way, and then another (as in Antietam, the previous apex of bloodletting between these two heavyweights). The bold flanking maneuver to find weak spot in the enemies lines that nearly brought the Confederates victory in the battle's bloody second day. The fortunate arrival of fresh troops to one side or another to stem disaster at a climactic moment. And the desperate decision by an unheralded lower officer, a civilian before 1861 who knew nothing about war until history required soldiers, to save a battle with a brilliant maneuver -- this was Maine college professors Joshua Chamberlain's command to send the remnants of his regiment, out of ammunition, hurling like demons down the wooded hillside of Little Round Top in an outmoded bayonet charge that somehow succeeded in saving the Federal line of battle.
Finally, the valiant but doomed Confederate assault known as Pickett's charge on Cemetery Hill that so closely reprised the Federal disaster of six months before that Federal troops chanted "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" as they shot their exposed enemy down.
Ghosts are present at Gettysburg today. The stillness of its grassy fields on a warm summer morning makes memories grow louder. The absence of the armies sings of bullets. The earth remembers blood.
My visit there almost ten years ago surfaced all the old ambivalences. I honored the valor of those who risked and in so many cases lost their lost their lives there, while wondering whether the cause, the preservation of the Union, was worth such a sacrifice. Whenever a nation or group pays for its survival in blood, the cause receives the permanent elevation of memory. The truths Jefferson touted in the Declaration were "self-evident." Now they became sacred.
Once the ideal of nation a society dedicated to the belief that all human beings are created equal had been "consecrated" by our ancestors, how could could you give it up without a fight?
But how could anybody know that the fight would cost so many lives.