Memorial Day, 2021

This morning, to commemorate Memorial Day, I hiked up to the Stonington town cemetery to pay my respects and walk among the headstones of veterans and the small American flags and metal service medallions that had been placed at those gravestones by the groups that recognize how important it is to always acknowledge our veterans and their families.

The cemetery is located inland–given the literalist approach of Stonington street namers, it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s found on Cemetery Road–and it is neatly kept, regularly mowed and maintained, and surrounded by towering trees. Like many cemeteries, it is a quiet, peaceful place. A misty, rain-shrouded morning, as this one was, was a good time to visit and reflect on the veterans who served and to say a silent “thank you” for the sacrifices they and their families have made on behalf of all of us.

Deer Isle, where Stonington is located, has a long tradition of military service. It was mentioned several times in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, and the Stonington cemetery reflects that tradition of service. There were gravestones for Civil War veterans–the headstone in the foreground of the photograph above is of John M. Gookin, who served in Company B of the 7th Maine Infantry, a volunteer regiment that fought at Antietam, Gettysburg, and most of the other major Civil War battles in the east theater, as part of the Army of the Potomac–and there are markers that indicate that some of those who are laid to rest in the burial ground served in just about every war since. The many small American flags and medallions that were visible in the mist demonstrate that Deer Isle has held up its end of the bargain involved in living in a free society. Sometimes, unfortunately, our soldiers and sailors and pilots must fight for our freedoms.

Thank you to those who serve, those who have served, and the families that have supported them in their service. America really can’t thank you enough.

A 2021 Look At Presidents’ Day

It’s Presidents’ Day, 2021. Originally designated a federal holiday to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, and later expanded to cover both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who also was born in February, the holiday is now supposed to be a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents. Still, people mostly use it to celebrate George and Abe and the other great Presidents of American history.

But we’ve just come out of one of the worst years we’ve had in a while, and 2021 hasn’t exactly been gangbusters, either. So let’s acknowledge the current sour mood and use this Presidents’ Day to recognize one of the worst U.S. Presidents ever: James J. Buchanan. Historians may disagree somewhat about precisely who is the best U.S. President, or the absolute worst, but there is surprising unanimity about Buchanan. Everyone thinks this guy was a disaster.

Buchanan had an impressive resume when he was elected in 1856, having served in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as U.S. minister to Great Britain. But the 1850s were deeply troubled times in America, as the country was being pulled apart by slavery. Buchanan immediately provided evidence that he wasn’t up to the task of dealing with the issue in his inaugural address, when he amazingly stated that the issue of slavery in the territories was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” With constant bloody fighting between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and western Missouri, Buchanan managed to stake out a position that absolutely no one on either side agreed with.

Buchanan is reputed to have influenced the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which was issued shortly after his inauguration, and he thought it would put the slavery issue to rest — when instead it served only to further inflame abolitionist forces and spur people like Abraham Lincoln to reengage with national politics. But Buchanan didn’t stop there. He rarely spoke or appeared in public, and did nothing to try to bring the country together as it was spinning apart. Even worse, when Abraham Lincoln’s election caused southern states to begin seceding from the Union, the Buchanan Administration — which was heavily populated with pro-slavery Southerners — allowed the seceding states to seize federal forts and stockpiles that helped the Confederacy arm itself for the coming Civil War. Buchanan threw up his hands at the action of the southern states, and stated: “As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.”

Even more bizarrely, Buchanan thought the President had no real role to play in the great issue of the day. He said: “It is beyond the power of any president, no matter what may be his own political proclivities, to restore peace and harmony among the states. Wisely limited and restrained as is his power under our Constitution and laws, he alone can accomplish but little for good or for evil on such a momentous question.” When Abraham Lincoln finally took office, states had seceded, treasonous activities had gone unpunished, and James J. Buchanan had done nothing about any of it. Having brought the country to the brink of disaster and disunion while refusing to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to address the moral scourge of slavery, Buchanan sought to excuse his inaction. Fortunately, Lincoln was no Buchanan. If he had been, the world would be a much different place.

It’s hard to imagine that we could ever have a worse President than James Buchanan — one more inept or ill-equipped to deal with the compelling issues of the day. Let’s hope we never find out.

The Last Civil War Widow

The news media is reporting that the last documented American Civil War widow has died. The woman, Helen Viola Jackson, passed away on December 16, 2020 at age 101 in a nursing home in Marshfield, Missouri.

You’re no doubt thinking that the Civil War ended in 1865, more than 155 years ago So how could a 101-year-old woman, born in 1919, be a Civil War widow? The answer will remind all of the lawyers out there about “the rule against perpetuities,” “fertile octogenarians,” and other bizarre common law principles about property rights and inheritance that allowed law school professors to tie students in knots while posing uncomfortable, head-scratching hypotheticals about improbable family arrangements.

Ms. Jackson married James Bolin, who served in the 14th Missouri Cavalry in the Civil War, in September 1936 — when she was 17 years old, and he was 93. The two met when Ms. Jackson’s parents volunteered her to help Mr. Bolin with his chores on her way to school. Mr. Bolin did not want to accept charity, so he proposed that the two marry, which would allow Ms. Jackson to be the beneficiary of his Union Army pension payments after his death. She accepted, and they were married. Mr. Bolin then died in 1939, and Ms. Jackson never remarried.

But here’s the kicker: Ms. Jackson did not publicly disclose their marriage, or ever make a claim to receive a pension payment — despite Mr. Bolin’s wishes. She kept their marriage a secret because she did not want Mr. Bolin hurt by “wagging tongues” in the community, and she wanted to preserve her reputation, too — especially since one of Mr. Bolin’s daughters wasn’t happy about the relationship. Ms. Jackson didn’t raise the issue of the marriage until 2017, which caused the Daughters of the Union Veterans organization to examine historical records and verify the marriage and her Civil War widow status.

So, the last living link to the Civil War is gone, generations after the last shots were fired. Ms. Jackson’s story, and her proud decision not to claim those pension payments even during the days of the Great Depression, also reminds us of just how much America has changed.

Lincoln On The Verge

I’ve had a chance to do some real leisure reading over the holidays, which is a wonderful way to spend a few days away from work. The first book I tackled was terrific: Lincoln On The Verge: Thirteen Days To Washington, by Ted Widmer. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history generally, and Abraham Lincoln specifically. (And a hat tip to JV, who recommended it to me in the first place.)

You might call Lincoln On The Verge a microhistory. It focuses specifically on the thirteen-day train trip Lincoln took from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. They were thirteen momentous days, as the South was moving from secession to a full-blown Confederacy, with a government, a President of its own, and ongoing seizures of federal facilities as the do-nothing Buchanan Administration sat idly by, twiddling its thumbs and utterly failing to uphold, preserve, and protect the Union or the Constitution. It’s hard to read this book and not come away with the distinct view that James Buchanan was the most worthless holder of the Presidency ever: corrupt, inept, helpless, and presiding over an Administration thoroughly infused with southerners who were actively undermining the Union they were supposed to be serving.

For Lincoln, it was a dangerous time on a personal level. As the country was coming apart, he was the subject of countless assassination threats — and, on the trip itself, actual assassination attempts and other dangers as he went out among the people. He also faced a different kind of risk. As was traditional during that time period, Lincoln had remained silent during the campaign for the Presidency, letting his surrogates and many campaign biographies work for his election. But as the train trip began, Lincoln began to speak, and ended up giving dozens of speeches as his special train followed a zig-zag course through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio (including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus), Pennsylvania, and New York. Some of his speeches were clinkers, but others were brilliant reflections on the American experience. Lincoln’s speeches to the masses that came out to greet him on his winding journey set a marked contrast with President Buchanan, who never spoke in public, and helped to build essential public support for the Union cause and for the Civil War that lay just over the horizon. The journey was capped by a run though the dangerous slave state of Maryland, where the threat of an assassination attempt loomed large, to finally reach Washington, D.C., the capital city nestled between two slave states.

Along the way, the formerly clean-shaven Lincoln continued to grow the beard that we now associate with him, and was seen and distinctly remembered by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans — including some who went on to become famed poets, sculptors, advocates for the abolitionist movement, and future Presidents. As the journey progresses, the reader also gets glimpses of a very different, rapidly growing America on the cusp of earth-shaking conflict and change.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that strongly resonates today. The subtext of the entire book is pretty clear — good leaders can make a profound difference and bring people together in a common cause even in the face of incredible divisiveness And the ultimate message is clear, too: where would we be if Abraham Lincoln had not been there to accept the greatest challenge in American history?

Ghosts of High School Past

Some curious news for those of us who graduated from Upper Arlington High School has been reported recently:  the existing school where we went to classes years ago is built on the grounds of a former family cemetery.  (As if going to high school weren’t scary enough already, just on its own!)

pioneer-green-flakeThe back story is really pretty interesting stuff.  In the years before and during the Civil War — long before Upper Arlington became the hoity-toity, McMansion-filled suburb it is now — the land was owned by a former slave named Pleasant Litchford.  He was an leading member of the Perry Township community, a master blacksmith, a founding member of a church, a large property owner, . . . and, notably, a participant in the Underground Railroad that moved escaped slaves from the slaveholding south, through the free states, and north to Canada and freedom.  Mr. Litchford established a school for African-American children on his property — and also a cemetery for his family and descendants.  Mr. Litchford died in 1867, just after the Civil War ended.

Years later, Upper Arlington was founded, and later still, in 1955, the school board was looking for a place to build the new high school.  They bought the Litchford property and discovered that it included the cemetery.  Rather than leave the cemetery be, they exhumed the buried bodies and moved them to Union Cemetery for reinterment, where most of them are listed as “unnamed adults.”  The school then was built on the property and, with the kind of collective amnesia that is all-too-common in American history, people in Upper Arlington promptly forgot about Pleasant Litchford and his family cemetery.  When I started to go to UAHS in the early ’70s, no one told me or my fellow students that we were walking over the ground of a former cemetery.

I don’t think I ever saw a ghost lurking in the halls of UAHS, and the only creepy feeling I got was around the flea-bitten remains of a gigantic standing stuffed bear that was kept in a glass cage near the entrance of the building.  Now the old building is going to be torn down and a new building erected, and the construction crews are going to be mindful, as they dig and build, to keep an eye out for remains that might have been missed in 1955.

And while they’re building a new school, here’s an idea for the school board to consider:  rather than renaming the new building Upper Arlington High School, which is pretty boring, how about celebrating a man whose life epitomized a strong, personal commitment to freedom, family, hard work, and education, and naming the new school Pleasant Litchford High School instead?

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.

Battlefields And Budgets

You may have forgotten that, on the campaign trail, Donald Trump promised that if he became President he would donate his presidential salary — currently, gross income of $400,000 a year — to a worthy cause.    It was a promise that kind of got lost among all of the other promises and pronouncements and insults and boasting that we heard during the awful 2016 presidential campaign.

Yesterday, though, President Trump followed through on that one promise:  he is contributing his after-tax presidential salary income from the first quarter of 2017 — $78,333.32 — to the Interior Department, where it will be used to fund restoration projects at Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

thirteenth-amendment-passes1_Antietam was a pivotal battle in the eastern theater of the Civil War.  Like other Civil War battles, it was unbelievably bloody, with thousands of casualties, but after a series of losses to Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army, Antietam was one of the few battles where the North could plausibly claim a victory.  And that is where the true significance of the Battle of Antietam lies:  President Lincoln had resolved not to issue the Emancipation Proclamation until after a military victory by the North, because he didn’t want the Proclamation to look like a desperate act in a losing cause.  Antietam gave him the ability to issue the Proclamation, which forever changed the focus and nature of the Civil War and American history as well.  President Trump’s contribution will be used to help restore the exterior of a house where injured soldiers were treated during the battle.

Some groups seized upon the announcement to contrast the President’s contribution with the budget cuts he is proposing for the Interior Department and the National Parks Service.  The Sierra Club stated that “America’s parks, and the people and economies they support, need real funding, not a giant fake check.”   An official with the Center for Western Priorities commented:  “Honoring military sacrifice and conserving battlefields are things that all Americans can get behind. But this publicity stunt must be taken in context: President Trump and Secretary Zinke are proposing a crippling $1.6 billion budget cut to our national parks, battlefields, and other public lands.”

It’s a sign, perhaps, of the state of our modern political world that President Trump’s contribution can’t simply be graciously accepted as a generous act.  I’ve been a critic of the President in the past, and no doubt will be again, but this is an instance where he deserves credit for doing something that is all too rare in American politics — satisfying a campaign promise.  And if, like me, you believe that it’s well past time to bring our federal budget, and federal spending, under control, you can’t simply treat every proposed budget cut as an unmitigated disaster.  That’s how we got into our current federal debt predicament in the first place.

Tearing Down The Confederate Past

Early Thursday morning, masked workers, operating under a significant police guard, removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy, that had stood in New Orleans for 106 years.  The statute, located at the end of a park, shows Davis standing next to a pedestal, with one hand on the pedestal and the other outstretched, as if Davis were gesturing during some important speech.

220px-jefferson_davis2c_slave_ownerThe workers who took down the statue were masked and wore dark clothing, and there was a heavy police presence, because there had been anonymous threats to harm the people involved in the removal.  Others in New Orleans simply oppose the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue — which is one of four statues that honor the “lost cause of the Confederacy” in New Orleans that are slated for removal — on the grounds that the Mayor of New Orleans is trying to sanitize history.  The President of a group called the “Monumental Task Committee,” for example, said:  “Another historic monument was removed under the cover of darkness using amateur, masked workers in armor, unmarked vehicles and equipment with a heavy police presence.  [New Orleans Mayor] Landrieu cannot be inclusive, tolerant or diverse when he is erasing a very specific and undeniable part of New Orleans’ history.”  According to a city spokesman, New Orleans is now looking for a “more appropriate” place to put the statues — like a museum.

As far as I’m concerned, the “more appropriate” fate of the statues would be to melt them down for scrap metal value.  I don’t agree with the notion that removing statues of Confederate leaders in heroic poses from public spaces is trying to “sanitize” our past.  History is history, and whether such statues are kept around, or are removed, isn’t going to change that.  In fact, if anything, the design and construction of the Davis monument represented the effort to whitewash the past, not its removal.  When New Orleans decided to erect a statue of Davis nearly than 50 years after the Civil War ended, why didn’t they create a statue that showed Davis scurrying away from Richmond just before Union forces entered the city, or show Davis behind bars after being captured?  It would have been more accurate, because the South — thank goodness! — lost the Civil War.  The fact that some people in New Orleans more than 100 years ago had the bad judgment to erect an heroic statue of Davis doesn’t mean that the people of New Orleans must be stuck with that embarrassing mistake forever.

It makes perfectly good sense to remove a statue that offends many people because it celebrates a rebellion and a government that was created largely because racists wanted to preserve the immoral and brutal practice of slavery, and that was defeated only at the cost of millions of American lives.  The Confederacy should be remembered, but it should be remembered not as some honorable “lost cause,” but as the last gasp of a shameful chapter in American history.  Removing heroic statues of Confederate leaders is a good step toward putting the Confederacy into its true historical context.

Better Late Than Never

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his address at the commemoration of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a decisive battle of the American Civil War had been fought months earlier.

On November 24, the Harrisburg Patriot & Union published a editorial that dismissed the President’s remarks as “silly.”  The editorial stated:  “We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.”

150 years later, the newspaper — which is still around, now operating under the name Patriot-News — has retracted that scathing judgment about the Gettysburg Address.  Speculating that the writer of the earlier editorial may have been under the influence of partisanship or strong drink, the Patriot-News editorial board writes that its prior judgment was “so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives.”  The newspaper’s correction states:  “In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.”

The Patriot & Union was not alone in questioning the value of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the days after it was spoken to the world.  Its extreme brevity in a day when important speeches often were hours long, and its conceptual approach, which linked the Civil War to the Declaration of Independence, looked forward rather than backward at the great battle, and declined to directly criticize the Confederacy by name, made it stand out as radically different.  Lincoln himself is said to have remarked, after the speech was over, that his remarks “won’t scour.”

Lincoln was wrong, of course, and so was the Harrisburg Patriot & Union in dismissing his profound remarks as “silly.”  To its credit, the newspaper has finally, a century and a half later, corrected its error.  Sometimes it just takes time to recognize what has truly happened and to appreciate its significance.  The heated passions and glib remarks of the day often seem silly when viewed with the cool judgment of history.

Remembering Congressional Medal of Honor Winners On Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, when every American should be grateful for the sacrifices of all of those who have served in the military.  What better way to appreciate the true meaning of their service than to recall those whose service was so extraordinary — so conspicuous for its courage, gallantry, and selflessness — that they received the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award?

The Congressional Medal of Honor was established in 1862, during the early days of the Civil War.  Its first recipient was Private Jacob Parrott, who penetrated deep into Confederate territory to destroy railroad tracks and seize a train.  The Civil War also saw the first award of the Medal of Honor to an African-American — Sergeant William Carney of the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry, who participated in the assault on Fort Wagner, planted the flag on the parapet, and kept the flag from touching the ground despite twice being severely wounded.

The only award of the Medal of Honor to a woman, Dr. Mary Walker, also occurred during the Civil War.  Dr. Walker received the Medal for her service throughout the Civil War, which included caring for the wounded at the battles of Bull Run, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, and then spending four months as a prisoner of war after being captured.

In the 150 years since its establishment, the Congressional Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,463 people, of whom 78 are still living.  The most recent recipient is Captain William D. Swenson, who received his Medal on October 15, 2013 for his actions in Afghanistan in 2009.  Captain Swenson led his men under fire during a six-hour firefight against enemy forces who surrounded them on three sides, refused to surrender, provided medical aid to a wounded fellow soldier, and then twice exposed himself to heavy enemy fire to rescue wounded soldiers and recover fallen soldiers.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is awarded to those who service has been extraordinary, but the qualities of courage, self-sacrifice, and service that it commemorates are shared by all of the men and women who serve honorably in our armed forces.  On this Veterans Day, a heartfelt thank you to all of our veterans and active duty personnel!

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.

Gettysburg, July 3, 1863

July 3, 1863 dawned hot in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The soldiers of the two huge armies groaned in the stifling overnight heat, and then Union forces began another day of fighting with an artillery barrage that started at 4:30 a.m.  The rebel forces responded by attacking, and the sound of battle drifted over the countryside.

Confederate commander Robert E. Lee had spent the night reflecting on the day before, when the rebels had come close to breaking the Union lines and winning a devastating victory.  Lee concluded that another assault on the Army of the Potomac might produce a breakthrough.  This time, he planned on a direct attack on the center of the Union position.

Lieutenant General Longstreet, whose troops were to carry out the assault, adamantly opposed Lee’s announced plan.  Longstreet believed that no forces, however capable, could successfully carry out a direct attack on the prepared enemy positions.  But Lee was not to be dissuaded, and the duty to carry out the assault was given to Confederate General George Pickett and his fresh force of Virginians.

At 1 p.m. Confederate artillery began shelling the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge, hoping the soften the lines so that Pickett could break through.  But the barrage was ineffective, and when Pickett’s 12,000 men began their famous charge across the field toward Cemetery Ridge later that afternoon the Union forces were ready.  The Federals poured cannon fire and rifle volleys into Pickett’s troops, tearing huge holes in their lines and leaving thousands dead and dying.

Amazingly, some rebel troops reached the Union lines, and the soldiers fought hand to hand.  Union reinforcements soon appeared, and ultimately the rebel losses proved to be too great.  The Confederates recognized that the charge could not succeed, and then the living remnants of Pickett’s decimated brigade retreated over the bloody ground.

Lee knew that he had blundered and accepted full blame for the carnage inflicted on Pickett’s brigade.  But the tide had turned, and the die had been cast.  The fighting ended, with the Southern forces suffering 28,000 dead, wounded, and missing over the three days of clashes compared to 23,000 casualties for the Army of the Potomac.

The numbers, however, did not tell the full story.  The Confederate invasion of the North had been repulsed, and the Army of the Potomac had finally won a real victory against the seemingly unbeatable Robert E. Lee.  Rather than inflicting a blow that might cause the North to sue for peace, Lee’s plan had given the Union a great, if bloody, victory that stiffened its resolve to fight on.

Gettysburg, July 2, 1863

As the second day of the battle dawned, the Army of the Potomac held the high ground south of the little Pennsylvania town — but its hold was precarious, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee was determined to dislodge the Union forces and win another stunning victory over the beleaguered Northern army.

Lee decided to swing a mighty hook at the Union left flank.  The attack would be led by his dependable “War Horse,” Lieutenant General James Longstreet, while the rest of the rebel army would pin the Union center and launch diversionary attacks at the Union right to prevent reinforcements.  Lee hoped Longstreet would be able to turn the flank and roll up the Union forces, crushing them between his men and the remainder of the Confederate Army.  On the Union side, commanders were frantically moving into position, seeking to plug holes in the line to deal with the attack they knew was coming.  After two years of fighting, the Northerners knew that General Lee would be aggressive.

It was a brutally hot and humid July day.  The Confederate attack took time to develop, but by late afternoon it looked like Lee’s plan had, again, succeeded.  Longstreet had smashed into the Union left, sending soldiers scattering through a bloody wheat field, and Lee ordered a further attack on the Union left, hoping to deliver the coup de grace that would send the entire Army of the Potomac into another disorganized, embarrassing retreat.  The rebels attacked, shouting their eerie rebel yell, but the Union forces refused to buckle and sent fusillades of artillery into the attacking Confederates.  Attacks were launched and repelled at murderous cost, and the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers from both armies lay baking in the sun.

It was the day that would make Joshua Chamberlain immortal.  On the far point of the Union left, on Little Round Top, Chamberlain was a colonel in the 20th Maine.  The Men of Maine rebuffed several attacks by the 15th Alabama infantry until they ran low on ammunition.  At that point, Chamberlain ordered his men to attack with bayonets and the Mainers swept down the hillside, sending the Confederates fleeing and securing the Union flank.

As the day ended, both sides had suffered devastating casualties.  The Confederate attack had almost succeeded, but the Army of the Potomac had held for another day.  General Lee considered whether another assault the next day might win the battle, and Union commanders weighed how to prepare.  The common soldiers in both armies, on the other hand, found it difficult to sleep in the sweltering heat, as they listened to the screams of injured horses and wounded men and thought about the battle that lay ahead.

Gettysburg, July 1, 1863

One hundred and fifty years ago, in a small town in southern Pennsylvania, two armies began the battle that became a defining moment of the Civil War.

The Confederate forces were led by General Robert E. Lee.  Flush with a crushing victory at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to lead his Army of Northern Virginia in an invasion of the North.  Lee knew that the situation in the Confederacy was growing increasingly desperate.  Hundreds of miles to the west, General Ulysses Grant and his Army of the Tennessee were continuing a methodical siege of Vicksburg, hoping to win the surrender of the starving Confederate Army encamped there — and, with its surrender, achieve control of the mighty Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two.  Union blockades of Confederate ports were choking off trade and supplies.  Politically, the Confederacy was splintering.  Lee concluded that an invasion of the North, if successful, might bring the Union to the negotiating table and save the Confederacy from the inexorable forces that were strangling it.

The Army of the Potomac was led by a new commander — the goggle-eyed, waspish George Meade.  President Lincoln picked Meade to be the latest in a long line of Union Army generals to lead the North’s principal army.  All of Meade’s predecessors had had been outfought, outmaneuvered, whipped and humiliated by Lee and his supremely confident army.  Only a few days before the battle of Gettysburg began, Meade replaced General Joseph Hooker, who had lost the battle of Chancellorsville.  As Lee marched north, Meade pursued him, always striving to keep his army between Lee’s forces and Washington, D.C.  Meade feared that, if Lee somehow took the Nation’s Capital, a Union tired of years of bloody war might decide to sue for peace.

On June 30, as the two enormous armies moved through the quiet Pennsylvania countryside, ill-clad Confederate troops heard that shoes might be found in Gettysburg.  Rebels skirmishers visited the town, found some Union troops there, and told their commanders — who decided to press the issue.  On July 1, lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia moved into Gettysburg. clashing with Union cavalry.  The Confederates drove the Union Army through town, leaving the Army of the Potomac clinging desperately to two hills south of town — Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.  In the meantime, the main armies were wheeling slowly into position, and Meade decided that Gettysburg might be the ideal place for a pitched battle.

Most of the soldiers in the two armies were farm boys who hailed from towns much like Gettysburg, which at that time was home to about two thousand people.  They had seen their fellow soldiers killed by the score in battles that were appallingly bloody by modern standards, with brave men ordered into ill-fated charges in which they would be torn to shreds by minie balls and cannon shot — but they were determined to do their duty, no matter what the cost.

As night fell, the Union forces dug in, hoping to hold the high ground, and the Confederate generals planned their attack.  As the armies gathered around their crackling campfires, both sides suspected, correctly, that the big battle lay ahead.

Same Pose, Same Point

On our trip to the Homestead earlier this year, we saw the memorial to Confederate soldiers on the courthouse lawn in Warm Springs, Virginia.  Yesterday, in Blue Hill, Maine, we saw a strikingly similar memorial to his Union counterpart located near the entrance to the Seaside Cemetery.  Soldiers from Maine played a crucial role in the eventual Union victory, as any student of the Battle of Gettysburg will recall.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the statues of the Yankee and the Rebel feature nearly identical poses, with stolid soldiers standing erect, the butts of their rifles on the ground and the soldiers’ hands resting on the muzzle?  No depictions of shooting or bayoneting or heroic charges; just silent soldiers standing guard.  It’s as if, with the Civil War ended, neither side wanted a stone reminder of the violent reality of the bloodiest conflict in American history.