Oct 23, 2008
|The paradox of the Civil War - Thursday, October 23
The town of Gettysburg lies an hour’s drive south of Hershey and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In fact Harrisburg, the state capital, may have been the main target of Lees march into the north before he got sidetracked at Gettysburg. Fresh off a string of victories in the south, Lee thought a decisive win in a northern state might end the war and bring victory to the south. Whether he was right or not we will never know. Lee’s Army of Virginia was beaten badly at Gettysburg, and with the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi the next day it was the beginning of the end for the south.
I got interested in the Civil War several years ago during a visit to Arlington Cemetery, which is located on Lee’s original plantation in Virginia. The visit made clear how little I knew about the Civil War, so I bought Battle Cry of Freedom, the Pulitzer Prize winning history of the war, to read up on the times and relearn what I had forgotten from school. As Civil War anthologies go the book is a relatively short one, and my plan was to use it to get a good overview of the war, and then read more detailed histories of the various battles and campaigns later on. That time never came.
By the time I was finished with the 800 page overview I was so sick of the whole mess that I found I didn’t want to wallow in more detail. I didn’t want to hear more of the south’s ugly rhetoric, or be further horrified by the spectacle of brave men fighting and dying for such a wretched cause. My country’s early acceptance of slavery disgusted me as never before, and I found myself losing respect I had formerly had for many of our founding fathers.
The stirring language of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence seemed hollow indeed coming from a man who owned slaves himself, and the claim that ‘all men are created equal’ is just so much sanctimonious hypocrisy coming from men who only claimed it for themselves. Still - there were good men and women who opposed slavery from the beginning, and the American Civil War gave the country a chance to clean up it’s act and finally live up to it’s high sounding moralizing.
Because it ultimately resulted in emancipation I am still interested in the Civil War, but I have to take it in small amounts. Last year we visited the battlefield at Vicksburg, now it is time to visit Gettysburg. We have allowed a day and a half, which is not a lot of time to absorb so much information - but it is enough.
We arrived in Gettysburg around noon, and the first thing we did was to check into our campground. It is a short ways from the National Park Service Visitor Center, and that became our first destination once we’d secured our campsite. The countryside around Gettysburg is hilly and wooded, and it is not hard to get into the spirit and imagine the two armies clashing here. To help in that respect, the park service offers a good 22 minute film narrated by Morgan Freeman.
Besides the film, and integral to it, there is an astounding 360 degree painting of Pickett’s Charge. The painting was made in the 1800’s shortly after the war, and it is so realistic that veterans of the battle are said to have wept when they saw it. It has recently been painstakingly restored, and it is presented now in all it’s terrible reality. Visitors leave the film and ascend an escalator to a viewing platform. There you stand, surrounded by a painting in which life sized figures are engaged in one of the most desperate battles of the war. A narrator describes the progress of the battle, complete with sound effects and lighting that spotlights individual engagements he is talking about. The effect is stunning, and at the end not a sound can be heard from the crowd of people who have just witnessed it.
Paintings like this are called Cycloramas, and they were the nineteenth century’s equivalent of today’s IMAX theater. The experience includes a gallery of information on how the painting was produced and restored. From there you go to the museum, which has millions of artifacts from the battle and displays them on a rotating basis. Like the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois, the Gettysburg Museum uses modern technology to enhance the exhibits. In three separate galleries there are narrated slide shows of the three days of the battle, which in the end claimed as many casualties (dead, wounded and captured) as there were dead in all the years of the war in Viet Nam.
There were over 51,000 casualties. While the dead numbered slightly less than 8,000 at the time, many later died of their injuries and the real number who died was probably three times that in the end. The museum does a fine job of making the battle real. It ends with a wall of pictures of some of the important Civil War generals and asks the question of ‘What happened to them?”
Some were killed or died of other causes, some stayed in the army as a career, and some returned to civilian life. The one who most interested me was Pickett, the man who’s name will forever be synonymous with pointless charges against impossible odds. Ordered into it by Robert E. Lee he was one of the few southerners who did not idolize Lee after that. He moved to Canada after the war, but eventually returned to the United States where he sold insurance. Asked once about why he thought his famous charge failed, he responded with surprising wit for a general, “I always thought that maybe the Yankees had something to do with that.”
Tomorrow we have tickets to a bus tour of the battlefield, and on Saturday we will head for West Virginia. Gettysburg is fascinating in it’s way, but enough is enough.