150 years ago this week, an incredible battle was fought outside the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Over 160,000 soldiers faced off in an area approximately 25 square miles in size. At the end of the three day battle, almost 8,000 men had died, another 27,000 were injured, and over 10,000 captured or missing. Those casualties were the greatest of any battle during the Civil War.
I always wonder whether the legend of such events is over done. Whether historians looking back inflate the significance. If you read anything about Gettysburg you will be told that it was the battle that began the end of the Confederacy. It was the battle when the North finally won in convincing fashion, virtually destroying Robert E. Lee’s army. With the loss at Gettysburg, it was only a matter of time. Is that really true though? When you walk through the hallowed grounds of the Gettysburg battlefield, it’s easy to believe the historians.
I’ve been lucky enough to do this twice in my life. Once when I was seven — I don’t remember that trip. A second time three years ago when we took our kids back east for the obligatory American history tour. Gettysburg was the only Civil War battlefield we stopped at. We spent a day there driving through the monuments and statues. I’d gladly go back and spend more time walking the battlefield.
There are hundreds of them, memorializing the many units and corps from the many states that sent their soldiers to fight and die. It is seeing all of those stone markers that renders the significance of the battle all too real.
The battlefield is spread out over relatively flat land. Small ridges provided convenient locations for the Union forces to form their lines and hold back Confederate charges. Small hills, barely deserving of the name “hill”, provided the focal points for the battle. Whoever holds the high ground wins. The ultimate test of King of the Hill. Little Round Top. Culp Hill. Hundreds of men died, many more were injured for these little patches of land. Here’s a view of the battlefield from Little Round Top.
That the Union held and never gave up at Little Round Top was critical. That one little hill. If the Confederate troops had been able to overrun the Union at Little Round Top, maybe the battle would have turned and history would tell another story. And that’s the thing that is so amazing. Such a small thing and history’s story turns out one way instead of another. The stories surrounding Gettysburg, as with so many historical events, are fascinating. But for this general’s strategic misstep or that general’s gallantry in the line of fire, but for men who rose to the deed or those that failed no matter how hard they fought, history could have changed. History’s story is frequently better than anything fiction can come up with. If you have a chance to read a book about Gettysburg, do it. It’s a fascinating tale.
As everybody celebrated the 4th of July yesterday with their barbecues and beer and fireworks, I wondered as I frequently do, whether I belong in this place and time. We’re celebrating our freedom!! Yippee! Hooray! But does anybody stop, really stop, and think about that word. Freedom. What it means. What blood and sweat has gone into it. Preserving it. Strengthening it. Weakening it. Freedom. Really. Does anybody stop and think about it when they’re having their third hot dog and the fake rockets are flying into the air setting off dazzling displays of color?
Next year, I’m not doing the traditional thing again. I’m going to find a soldier to thank. Or something. Anything other than the mind-numbing “celebration” that has become the norm. If you were really to celebrate your freedom, to mark it in a real way, what would you do?