I just returned from Kent Masterson Brown’s three-day tour of the Battle of Gettysburg. Brown, a member of the Abbeville Institute (listen to his excellent lecture on the fallacy of an indissoluble Union here) was a fantastic guide. Genial and knowledgeable, spending three days with Brown was a real pleasure.
We spent three days trekking around the battlefield, trying to get a feel for what the battle was actually like for those who fought. We tracked down where the first shot of the battle was fired. We stood on the heights of Little Round Top and amid the crags of Devil’s Den. We marched across the killing field of Pickett’s Charge. While standing at a place of some significance, Brown would read passages from the memoirs of those who were there. We heard a gripping account of General James J. Pettigrew’s division slogging uphill against the formidable “Iron Brigade,” its battle flags “bathed in the blood” of their bearers. We heard a darkly comical “Fourth of July” speech given by a Confederate officer as his command was under heavy fire. “Do you see what’s going on here?” Brown often asked. With Brown’s guidance, we really did understand how the battle unfolded as well as why and how decisions were made. Indeed, there is an armchair general inside of every Civil War “buff” who after reading a book or two believes he should have been the one to fight the battle. Brown, however, showed us just how close the battle came, that many of the alternative scenarios are unrealistic to impossible, and that the “mistakes” of which Lee is accused of making made sense in the moment. Still, the “what if’s” of the battle will never die. “Let’s be honest,” my uncle once quipped after I criticized such armchair generals. “We all want to re-fight the battle.”
Throughout the trip, I jotted down a few observations which I thought would be of interest to the readers of the Abbeville Institute.
I. Everybody Wants To Be A Rebel
When I was a child, I remember asking my mother why no one ever studied or admired the Federals the way that they do the Confederates. She replied that it was because the Confederates were the only ones worth honoring. Aside from pride in my heritage, the more I learned about the so-called “Civil War,” the clearer this became. The North had every advantage – manpower (a huge population several times that of the South, supplemented by heavy immigration), manufacturing (a massive industrial base capable of producing whatever munitions were needed), and money (a functional government built largely by Southerners) – and yet it took her four years to conquer the South. Truly, the South was beaten by numbers, not brains or bravery on the battlefield.
The most poignant illustration of this disparity took place in the Overland Campaign, the fateful clash between General Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant. In battle after battle, Lee beat back Grant – badly. In the lulls between each battle, Lee, always trying to get into his adversary’s head, pondered what Grant could possibly be doing. Lee’s expectations for Grant were too high; all this “butcher” was doing was waiting for new recruits to replace his losses. By the end of the campaign, although Grant had suffered as many casualties as Lee had men in his army, Northern numbers soon restored the former to full strength. Lee’s losses, however, were irreplaceable, which is exactly how Grant, who could not beat Lee on the battlefield, won – attrition. The fact that it took the Federals as long as it did to conquer the Confederates is pathetic. The fact that the Confederates resisted for as long as they did, by contrast, is heroic. But I digress: an encounter I had during the trip reminded me of my mother’s satisfactory answer from so long ago.
One gentleman with whom I spoke was disappointed that he did not have any ancestors in the Army of Northern Virginia. He searched and searched, but he was sad to say that all he was able to find were Federals. When those with ancestors at the battle were asked to stand, he did so with remarkable reluctance. He did not want to admit to having Federal blood in his veins, to being connected to the death of the Southern dream at Gettysburg. So, why is it that everyone wants to be a Rebel, not a Yankee? Is it that they are racist? Or could it be that there is an irresistible romance to a civilization fighting to preserve its way of life? Is it that they hate America? Or could it be that secession – i.e. the right of political divorce – not only makes sense on an intuitive level, but also is clearly in accord with the American tradition of self-government? Is it that they are ignorant? Or could it be that defending one’s homeland from fire and sword resonates powerfully in the human heart?
II. Yankee Logic
As the youngest member of the tour, I was the belle of the ball, so to speak. Nearly everyone approached me at some point and asked how I became interested in the Civil War. “Well, I inherited it from my grandfather, who taught military history at West Point,” I explained to one gentleman. “I personally am not interested in the Civil War,” he admitted. “I think it was a terrible waste of life and everything else.” Apparently, the only reason he was there was because he is a longtime follower of Brown. “Yes, it was an awful and avoidable war,” I replied. “All of the alleged ‘good’ which came out of it would have happened peacefully anyway, without any loss of life or liberty.” The gentleman would not go that far, however. “Well, they did it, and it all worked out alright, as far as I’m concerned.” On the one hand, the war was terrible waste – on the other, it worked out alright? All due respect, but brave blood wasted is never worth it.
III. Confederate Valour
As I said earlier, Brown regularly read parts of memoirs at various points on the battlefield. As we approached the Angle, he stopped and read a Confederate and Federal account of the climax of Pickett’s Charge. I shall never forget the Federal soldier’s horrific description of Pickett’s Charge: a cloud of dust and smoke with body parts flying in every direction, emitting a sickening groan as it stampeded ahead. Remember that the next time some hack or halfwit claims that Confederate valour was just a “myth” of the “Lost Cause.” Or perhaps these historians know more than Joshua Chamberlain, the Federal hero who saluted the furling of the flag out of respect to the bravery of its bearers? Brown told a story about a Tennessean who literally collapsed from fear when a fence he was climbing was suddenly peppered with a volley, splinters exploding in all directions. He rose, however, and pressed on. “That’s where guts come in,” remarked Brown.
IV. Monuments, North and South
There is a significant difference between Northern and Southern monuments on the battlefield. Northern monuments generally feature a soldier standing at attention. Sturdy and stoic, they are the perfect soldiers of “the Land of Steady Habits.” Southern monuments, however, feature soldiers in far more striking poses. North Carolina’s is a band of soldiers charging into battle waving a flag. Mississippi’s is a soldier swinging his musket over the body of a brother-in-arms. Louisiana’s is a spirit rising out of a fallen artilleryman, holding a flaming cannonball aloft and defiantly blasting its trumpet at the enemy. Virginia’s is simply unforgettable: all of her “sons” – farmers, businessmen, doctors, lawyers, artists, mechanics, and boys – rallying around the flag of their State, presided over by General Lee astride Traveler. This contrast speaks volumes about the cultural characters of the North and the South.
V. “A New Birth of Freedom”
The Cyclorama – a 42 x 377 foot painting which lines the inside of a large dome, is a mesmerizing and moving experience. There, in a short show, you can feel the sights and sounds of the battle. The visitor center’s brief film, however, lamely titled “A New Birth of Freedom,” is a disappointment. Morgan Freeman tells the audience that since “the future of slavery hung in the balance” of the 1860 presidential election. For full effect, an image of slaves picking cotton is overlaid across a map of the United States. Of course, what is not mentioned is that Lincoln’s actual opposition to slavery was purely sentimental and practically useless. Lincoln’s goal was to keep blacks in the South (and out of the North) and preserve the Territories for whites only. Time and time again, Lincoln reiterated that he had no authority or intention to interfere with slavery in the States. As Charles and Mary Beard pointed out, since no major political party ever called for the abolition of slavery in its platform, abolishing slavery cannot be said to have been the goal of any major political party. Nevertheless, “the future of freedom” was at supposedly stake. No mention of the fact that many Southerners conceded that slavery was uneconomical in the Territories, but opposed attempts to prohibit it on the principle that Congress had no such authority and as an insult to Southern honour.
The treatment of Fort Sumter is similarly absurd. South Carolina is said to have demanded the fort and then opened fire when refused. No snubbed delegation of commissioners sent to negotiate the South’s parting obligations to the Union. No outrageous duplicity on the part of the Lincoln Administration in dealing with the Confederate government. No pressure on the Republican Party for war as Northern interests counted the financial cost of secession. No efforts from the Confederate garrison in Charleston to ensure a peaceful resolution to the crisis. No, South Carolina simply bombed Fort Sumter out of the blue.
Also according to the film, the Emancipation Proclamation transformed what the war was “about,” as if one side can change what the other is fighting for. The average Confederate soldier fought to defend field and family, not strictly for slavery. So long as an invading army was on his soil, it did not make a difference to him why it was there. Furthermore, Lincoln described his edict as a “practical war measure” and “means” for the “suppression of the rebellion.” As Lincoln said from the start, the war was about restoring the Union and replanting the flag, not emancipating slaves. As Lincoln said around the time of his edict, freeing slaves behind enemy lines would disrupt the Confederate home front and win the war. Nevertheless, the Emancipation Proclamation is said to have magically transformed the war from a nationalistic conquest to a liberating crusade.
VI. The “Victory” of Gettysburg
Gettysburg, the site of the most celebrated Federal victory, where the “rebellion” was said to be crushed by the “Union,” and where Lincoln uttered his stupid, self-contradictory speech about warring on self-government in order to preserve self-government, was hardly even a victory at all. Lee left war-ravaged Virginia to feed his starving army. By chance, the armies collided at a crossroads. After three days of attacking a larger army occupying all the high ground – and very nearly winning – Lee then withdrew to Virginia with a rich supply train and continued to fight for two more years. Meade, who was hanging on for dear life those three days and completely unable to undertake any sort of offensive, does not even comes to Lee’s utter domination of the enemy in practically every other battle he fought. Accordingly, Brown noted that some Confederate soldiers actually considered Gettysburg a moral victory of sorts! This is the grand vindication of Union arms?
My tour of Gettysburg was a fantastic experience. Brown was a masterful guide and delightful company. I am very grateful to the Abbeville Institute for promoting this event on the website. I heartily recommend his tours and books to everyone.