Moving Beyond Gettysburg

Thanks to Eric Wittenberg for an excellent post on Gettysburg. I sometimes feel left out when others talk about the pull of Gettysburg. Often it is the result of an early childhood visit with the parents to the battlefield or the purchase of an illustrated history of the battle. Unfortunately, my parents never took me to Gettysburg even though we lived only a few hours away. The beach was my summer playground, though I remember a miserable trip to Williamsburg in the middle of the summer. Funny how things change. For me, the photograph of the Confederate sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den will always be more about the photographer than the final moments of a young soldier.

At the same time my lack of a personal history going back to my childhood could be seen as an advantage. I never had a chance to absorb the traditional story of the war as a forum where young men on both sides of the Potomac fought for values that could be celebrated by all Americans. For most Americans and Civil War “buffs” Civil War soldiers are blank slates when it comes to politics. The pervasiveness of this view is reflected in the way Americans chose to remember the war throughout the first few decades following the war and even in the work of prominent historians such as Bell I. Wiley in his classic study, Johnny Reb. It’s as if any mention of politics and ideology somehow spoils the show; we’re forced to talk about slavery, emancipation, the draft, and other examples of dissension both in the ranks and on the home front. More recent evidence for this can be seen in the hostile reaction to the National Park Service’s decision to re-examine its battlefield interpretations.

There is a gap between our popular and apolitical interpretation of Civil War soldiers and the work by historians on this very subject over the last few years. I am thinking of recent studies by James McPherson, Earl J. Hess, Reid Mitchell, and Chandra Manning who have emphasized the political and ideological beliefs of the men in the ranks. We study the changes in political culture during the first few decades of the 19th century, but somehow the obsession with the public realm disappears during the war. In fact, the men in Union and Confederate ranks were highly political and they followed events off the battlefield with an intensity that was unparalleled in the history of warfare up until that time. The Battle of Gettysburg took place in the summer of 1863 at a point when the shape of the war changed drastically. I want to know what Lee’s men thought about the Emancipation Proclamation as they moved north into Pennsylvania. How did those who were given orders to capture fugitive slaves along the march react? What did they think about the way the Davis administration was handling the war? How about their commitment to slavery? On the other side I want to know how Union soldiers were reacting to the Emancipation Proclamation and the likelihood that at some point they would be fighting next to a black man. What about the draft and their reactions to riots in New York City?

Not only were political concerns at the forefront of their thinking during the war, but it continued to shape their postwar remembrances. The activities of veterans provides an important case study of the ways in which memory and politics were continually interwoven following the war. Think about the decision of Union veterans to segregate GAR Camps throughout the country. More prevalent are the published accounts in Battles and Leaders and Confederate Veteran. Decisions to concentrate on the heroics of one-time enemies and ignore the divisive topics of slavery and emancipation were themselves political acts–a conscious decision to emphasize more benign national values as opposed to sectional disagreement. A more complete picture of wartime politics among the enlisted men reflects a certain level of consistency with their postwar experiences–both were political battles, one fought with the sword and the other a pen.

There is nothing more to learn about Gettysburg. We know where all the units were located and even if there are a few loose ends it doesn’t matter in the broader picture. There is no mystery to solve here. It would help to know more about their political lives. We do these men an injustice if we ignore this important aspect as they spent a great deal of time discussing political issues with comrades and in their letters home. Let’s stop treating these men as pawns manipulated by their superiors and now manipulated in our own mind games in an attempt to figure how the outcome may have turned out different.

0 comments… add one

Leave a Comment