Pickett’s Charge

One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Confederate forces near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began to advance toward Union forces perched on Cemetery Ridge.  It was a hot day, with temperatures in the upper 80s, and the troops on both sides were fatigued from two prior days of desperate battle.

913-004-2f9debccExcept, that is, for the Confederate division commanded by Major General George Pickett.  His division had just arrived at the battle, which is why rebel commander Robert E. Lee selected Pickett’s forces to lead the advance.  Lee hoped that the Confederate forces, which greatly outnumbered the Union troops that were defending Cemetery Ridge, could break the Union line and win the battle of Gettysburg.  Confederate general James Longstreet surveyed the ground where the rebel forces would make the advance — about three-quarters of a mile of open ground, broken up by fences, would need to be covered before the entrenched Union forces could be reached — and thought the troops would be slaughtered by cannon fire and massed rifle fire from the Union defenders.  But Lee’s order was obeyed anyway.

Longstreet was right — the assault was devastating to the Confederate forces.  The rebels were mowed down by the Union forces in appalling numbers.  It is estimated that the rebels sustained about 6,000 casualties in the space of about 30 minutes, before they finally retreated.  The disastrous attack became known as Pickett’s Charge, and some historians believe that it marked a crucial turning point of the Civil War.  It not only ended the battle of Gettysburg, it also ended Lee’s second, and last, attempt to invade the North — which he hoped would convince the Union side to negotiate a peace agreement.  It dealt Lee, who had enjoyed success after success against a revolving door of Union commanding generals, a clear defeat, and it put the rebel forces on the defensive.  Although nearly two years of hard fighting still remained before the Civil War would finally end, after the battle of Gettysburg, and the Union victory at Vicksburg in the western theater that happened one day later, on July 4, 1863 — the Union side had the initiative.

The news of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, and the Union capture of Vicksburg made July 4, 1863 — the day after Pickett’s forces were bloodily repulsed — a very memorable Independence Day.

Gettysburg, July 4, 1863

It was the Glorious Fourth, but to the soldiers of both armies it was just the fourth day of a brutal, bloody battle.  The fighting had stopped, but the terrible signs of the battle were all around them:  the bodies of dead and dying soldiers, the desperate cries of the wounded, the carcasses of horses, fields littered with bodies and debris, trees clipped and gouged and splintered by minie balls and cannon shot.

On the Confederate side, commander Robert E. Lee was beset by regret about the decimation of Pickett’s brigade during the charge that Lee had ordered — but Lee could not waste time in recrimination.  Having made the gamble to invade the North, Lee faced the predicament of extricating his army from hostile territory and retreating in the face of a victorious enemy.

Lee’s problems were intensified by the enormity of the Confederate casualties.  The retreat was not merely a matter of ordering able-bodied soldiers to march; the Confederates had thousands of wounded to attend to, and every expectation that the Army of the Potomac would attack their retreating army as it fled southward.  Lee gave orders that the train of wagons and wounded had to move at a steady pace and, if a breakdown occurred, the vehicle must simply be abandoned at the side of the road.  The retreating Confederate column reportedly was 14 miles long as it headed first west, and then south, to cross the Potomac River and return to Virginia.

On the Union side, the Army of the Potomac celebrated their victory over the rebel forces — but also had to attend to thousands of its own dead and wounded.  In the North, the Fourth of July was celebrated with special zeal that year, as newspapers reported both Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg and the surrender of long-besieged Confederate stronghold Vicksburg to Union forces far to the west.

After more than two years of hard, bloody fighting, the news finally was good for the North:  a rebel invasion has been repulsed, and with the fall of Vicksburg the entirety of the Mississippi River was under Union control.  Northerners could be forgiven if they hoped that the good news on July 4, 1863 meant that the war would soon be over — but it was not to be.  Almost two more years of blood and death lay ahead.

Secession Silliness And Voter Disinterest

The BBC reports that more than 100,000 Americans have posted petitions asking to secede from the union to a White House website.  The petitions apparently quote the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of when it “becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” and cite “blatant abuses” of citizen rights such as overly intrusive screening by the Transportation Security Administration.  The most popular petition, from Texas, has attracted more than 25,000 signatures.

I suppose the would-be secessionists recognize they can’t really secede — hundreds of thousands died in a bloody Civil War to establish that principle — and are merely hoping to make some kind of symbolic statement.  But for what purpose?  Saying that you want to secede because your candidate lost is as stupid and mindless as dim-witted celebrities like Cher threatening to leave the country if the Republican candidate wins.  In both cases, the sentiment expressed just reflects negatively on the speakers as juvenile sore losers who want to take their ball and go home.  What rational American is going to be persuaded by a petition that posits that overly aggressive TSA pat-downs justify secession from the United States?

Rather than submitting silly and counterproductive petitions, people who take their politics seriously would do well to consider the fact that voter turnout fell sharply from 2008 to 2012 and determine why that occurred.  I think the answer is simple:  Americans turned out to vote for change in 2008 and turned out again to vote for change in 2010 — and no change occurred.  They watched an endless Republican primary season that blended into an endless campaign.  They suffered through a barrage of negative ads and outright demonization and distortion of the opposing candidates, and they decided they had had enough and just weren’t going to waste their time any more in a process that seems to occupy huge amounts of time, attention, and money without achieving anything.

Thirteen million fewer Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008 — and voter turnoff affected both candidates.  President Obama won, but he received almost 10 million fewer votes in 2012 than in 2008 — and in fact received fewer votes in 2012 than John McCain received in 2008.

If our political leaders of both parties don’t figure out how to work together to address our looming problems, and we see only more years of pointless partisan bickering, don’t be surprised if the 2014 and 2016 turnouts continue the downward trend.  Americans not only won’t vote, they won’t care.

Submarine, Casket, And Time Capsule

The American Civil War was a time of great advances in warfare and technology — sometimes both at the same time.  Most people know that the first “ironclads,” the Union’s Monitor and the Confederacy’s Merrimac, appeared during the Civil War, fought to a draw, and foretold the end of the era of wooden warships.  Fewer are aware that the War also witnessed the first successful combat submarine — the H.L. HunleyNow the Hunley can be seen, in full, for the first time in 150 years.

The Hunley was supposed to be one of the Confederacy’s secret weapons, and a way to break the strangling blockade Union warships placed around Confederate ports.  It was a 42-foot-long, cast iron cylinder that was powered by a hand-cranked propeller.  Built in Mobile, Alabama in 1863, it was transported to Charleston, South Carolina, where it was supposed to move underwater and attach explosive torpedos to the hulls of Union ships.

The submarine turned out to be a death trap.  It sank twice in sea trials, killing 13 sailors, but was raised by the Confederacy both times.  In 1864, the Hunley and a new 8-member crew left port, traveled four miles out to sea, and successfully attached a torpedo to the Union ship Housatonic, which burned and sank.  The Hunley never made it back to port, however, and sank with all hands.

In 2000 the Hunley was raised from the briny deep and deposited in a fresh water tank to leach salt from its iron hull.  Since then, scientists have worked on the sub.  Inside they found, and then carefully removed, 10 tons of sediment, the remains of the Hunley‘s last crew, and the crew’s belongings, including a gold coin kept by the captain as a good luck piece.  Now tourists will be able to see the ship in full, kept in a water tank to prevent rusting.

Although the humble Hunley had a short career, it pointed the way to the modern, nuclear-powered underwater behemoths that prowl the ocean seaways.

The Lasting Lure Of Lincoln

Over the weekend I started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  I know it has been out for years, but I’ve been saving it on my nightstand to read at the right time.  That time is now.

Team of Rivals is Goodwin’s treatment of Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with the men who were competitors for the Republican nomination for President in 1860 and then became members of Lincoln’s cabinet.  I’ve been looking forward to it because I love reading about Lincoln and revisiting, again, the distant world of our 16th President, with its scourge of slavery and awesome challenge of secession, with huge armies marching across the land and the blood of brothers spilled, with telegraphs and smoking locomotives and political figures on horseback.

I’ve written before about Lincoln and his unshakable grip on the American imagination.  Part of that fascination stems from Lincoln’s compelling life story and part stems from his genius at expressing the deep themes of America with a few well-chosen words.  But part of the continuing interest in Lincoln is that his story is aspirational.  No matter how bad things may seem right now — or at any time since Lincoln’s assassination — we know that the challenges and political divisions we face pale in comparison to those that Lincoln and his administration overcame.

Lincoln was a deft politician, but his success in steering the country through the dark days of the Civil War was mostly due to his willingness to take on the hard questions and make the tough, but necessary, decisions.  Those same leadership qualities are what are sorely needed today.

On Public Square, Thinking Of LeBron James

In Cleveland today, passing the majestic Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square, it was hard not to think of . . . LeBron James.  Boy, the people in Cleveland seem to be walking with a spring in their step on this bright, sunny day!  Their hometown hero left them, in a very public, very classless way, and they have happily been rooting against him ever since.  So when the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat last night, denying LeBron James the NBA championship that he took his talents to South Beach to grasp, the people in Cleveland celebrated.

For one day, at least, the colossal spire of the Cleveland Soldiers and Sailors Monument seemingly was transformed from another Midwestern monument to the sacrifices made during the Civil War into a monumental middle finger to LeBron James, his conceit, his ego, and his lack of basic Midwestern decency.  The good folks of Cleveland aren’t shy about their feelings in this regard.  “Hey, LeBron!” they seem to be saying.  “You want to treat us like crap?  We are only to happy to reciprocate!”

LeBron is still a young man.  Maybe this whole exercise will teach him a valuable lesson in humility.

In The Midwest, The Civil War Is Never Very Far Away

The recent commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War brought that horrible conflict back into the consciousness of many Americans.  In many of the cities and towns of the Midwest, however, the reminders of the Civil War are ever-present.

I was in Indianapolis recently, and the gigantic Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument at the heart of Monument Circle is a good example.  Although the monument recognizes the contributions of soldiers and sailors from many conflicts beginning with the Revolutionary War, the portion of the monument that deals with the Civil War is the most memorable.  The devastating statistics of Indiana’s contribution to the Civil War effort, noting the hundreds of thousands who served and tens of thousands who died, are set forth in simple, precisely carved numbers on the facade.  The statistics appear under the heading “War For The Union.”

As one Hoosier mentioned to me on my visit, it is no accident that the numbers appear on the side of the monument facing due south.