Around the nation, a complicated dialogue is ongoing about how America ought to remember and think about its mottled past. Nowhere is that dialogue more raw and pointed then when it comes to the historic institution of slavery in America, and of the American Civil War, which was fought in large part if not in entirety to protect that institution and the lifestyle it enabled. In the past weeks, an iconoclastic movement has begun across the country, in which statues honoring Confederate figures as well as many others who are deemed to have any apparent association with America’s past history of slavery, racism, or white supremacy are being torn down unceremoniously by protestors and destroyed.
The Civil War in general remains one of the most complicated elements of America’s history, not least because so much of is has been mythologized to serve different political purposes over time, by northerners and southerners alike. And July 3rd is a day associated with both the real history and with some of the mythmaking, in both its positive and its negative respects. To understand that, let’s turn back the clock.
July 3rd, 1863
For the last two days, Union and Confederate forces have been engaged in an increasingly heated battle around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. By this morning, after tremendous casualties on both sides, it’s hard to imagine that the origin of the clash had to do with something as simple and innocuous as footwear.
An army on the march requires few things so much as good, well-made shoes. They wear out quickly, and feet exposed to the elements while traversing terrain are subject to more than just soreness; feet left wet for too long can become infected, as will become a widespread and horrible reality some 55 years from now during the First World War, and a simple cut or foot injury which becomes infected may lead to gangrene and a need for amputation. As a result, when Confederate General Henry Heth heard rumors that there might be a stockpile of equipment including shoes present in the town of Gettysburg, he sent Brigadier General Johnston Pettigrew forward with a brigade of men to search the town and return with whatever supplies he could confiscate.
Instead, Pettigrew stumbled across a small group of Union cavalrymen led by John Buford just south of the town. He retreated to report, and the next morning, two days ago now, Heth decided to take two brigades of infantry forward to drive off what he assumed to be only a small scout party, and then take the supplies from the town. Buford’s cavalry, however, rather than being driven off, mounted a surprisingly effective resistance despite being outnumbered, holding the high ground and buying time for the the remainder of General Meade’s Army of the Potomac, which Buford knew was close behind, to arrive in support.
The surprising effectiveness of a small Union cavalry force against two brigades of Confederate infantry was due in no small part to the difference in their weapons. Buford’s men, who fought dismounted and crouched behind fence posts along a ridgeline and two hills, were using breech loading carbines, probably Sharps. To explain; a breech loading weapon is one in which, rather than inserting the powder cartridge and bullet into the gun from the end of the barrel, the bullet and cartridge are inserted from an opening in the base of the barrel, which is then sealed up before the weapon is fired. It was a relatively new technology, and still being used only in a tiny minority of the weapons used at Gettysburg. Breech loading weapons had been a game changer for cavalry troops particularly, as muzzle loading long arms simply couldn’t be effectively reloaded from horseback. But in this case, they had an additional tremendous benefit. As Confederate troops advanced on Buford’s position, the dismounted Union cavalrymen could remain crouched down in cover while reloading their weapons; Confederates, armed with more traditional muzzleloading rifles, had to stand every time they wanted to reload, often making themselves a large target.
It’s worth a brief side note to talk about the weapons of the Civil War more broadly, because the war’s reputation of truly gruesome and horrifying injuries and regular need for amputations was well earned, and it had much to do with a recent advancement in bullet technology. While rifled barrels had been in use in firearms since the American Revolution and before, until the mid-1800s most bullets were still in the form of a spherical lead ball. This led to a complication, particularly with muzzle loading weapons. If the ball was the exact size of the barrel, then it would scrape along the rifling and potentially deform as it was pushed down the barrel of the weapon. If it was much smaller than the barrel, then it would enter easily, but the gaps between ball and barrel both made it catch the rifling less well, making it less accurate, and could allow the expanding gas from the ignited cartridge to escape past the edges of the ball, diminishing its power. Imagine, if you will, trying to blow a spitwad out of a straw; if the spitwad doesn’t completely fill the straw, then some air will just go past it and you won’t be able to shoot it very far. It seemed a catch-22, until the development of the Minie ball.
Generally, during the Civil War, soldiers referred to the bullet as a “minnie ball,” but we’ll use the French pronunciation because it was a Frenchman who developed the technology in 1846. Rather than a spherical lead ball, Minie developed a cylindrical bullet with a conical, rounded tip and a concave rear surface. The result was that the bullet could be small enough to easily feed down the tube with catching the rifling of the barrel, but when the weapon was fired the exploding gunpowder behind the bullet caused the rear surface to expand, catching the rifling and creating a seal.
It was a massive breakthrough that allowed more accurate rifled weapons, rather than traditional smoothbores, to suddenly dominate the battlefield. But it had several other terrible consequences. A round ball of lead would certainly deform when it struck a human body at high speed, but tended to stay together. The minie ball, thanks to its shape, had a tendency to “tumble” when it struck a target, and its thinner back end would then splinter into a host of smaller pieces. It was as though every bullet was a tiny shrapnel shell. A spherical ball would put a huge hole through your arm; a Minie ball could leave you looking like a wolf had chewed up the struck limb. And that very often meant amputation was an absolute necessity.
By the outbreak of the Civil War, nearly every weapon on the battlefield is firing some form of a Minie ball. And the carnage is terrible.
Buford’s small cavalry troop held off Heth’s confederate infantry long enough for more Union troops to begin arriving. Heth, meanwhile, had sent word back to Lee’s main army that they were encountering stiff resistance. Neither George Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, nor Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had intended Gettysburg to be the site of their decisive clash. But rapidly it was becoming clear; that is precisely what Gettysburg would be.
Union troops attempted to hold a defensive line to the west and north of the town of Gettysburg, but Confederate troops managed to outflank and then overwhelm their positions by the end of the first day. Union troops retreated through the streets of Gettysburg in disarray, pursued by Confederate forces, and began setting up a new defensive line centered around Cemetery Hill to the southeast of town. As late afternoon and evening fell, Lee had good reason to be confident; he sent a message to Ewell, the general commanding his left flank and who had been largely responsible for the collapse of the Union right that day, that he should push on and try to take Cemetery hill “if feasible.” Ewell decided to let his men regroup and rest instead, a decision which will be widely regarded by future military historians as one of the greatest Confederate errors at Gettysburg, and possibly in the entire war.
Yesterday, July 2nd, the Confederate army attempted to continue their successes of the previous day with a massive assault on both flanks of the Union army throughout the day, attempting to perform a double envelopment. The Union’s command of the high ground, however, gave them tremendous defensive advantages, though they still suffered terribly under the assaults. In the south, they lost control of a peach orchard, then a large area of broken rocks called Devil’s den, and finally Union troops even had to retreat from the hill that marked their leftmost flank, Big Round Top. They doggedly held on to Little Round Top, however, a hill that, if Confederate troops had taken it, would have allowed them to position artillery and fire lengthwise down the entirety of the Union lines. In the north, after a lengthy artillery barrage, Confederate forces charged the Union lines near Culp’s hill, and did tremendous damage. General Meade was only able to maintain his troops’ position under these withering assaults thanks to his decision to maintain several regiments of men back from the main lines, able to swiftly march forward and reinforce whatever areas were beginning to crumble. By the day’s end, the Union line still held.
That brings us to this morning. General Lee, knowing that the only way Meade has managed to sustain his flanks has been by constantly reinforcing them, decides that the Union Army is by this morning probably weakest at its center. After all, if reinforcements have repeatedly been moving out towards the flanks, then likely there are fewer men ready to defend against a massive charge up the middle. The biggest risk will be the Union artillery.
It’s here worth another side note to talk about the use of artillery in the Civil War. While the solid spherical shot, the “cannonball” of popular imagination, still exists, in battles involving infantry the most common forms of artillery ammunition are quite different. In the Civil War, they tend to take on three additional forms. First, there is the explosive shell, designed to detonate when it strikes a target or the ground, sending debris in a wide radius. Second, there is the Shrapnel Shell, named after Henry Shrapnel, who developed the first version of it nearly a hundred years before Gettysburg. Shrapnel shells operate on a timed fuse which starts the moment the shell is fired, and is designed to detonate in midair above an enemy line, sending a spray of small lead balls down through them. And finally, there is the canister, a deadly form of close range anti-infantry munition that has been used since the earliest days of artillery on Western battlefields, though it was popularized during the Napoleonic Wars. Canister shot consists of a cylindrical cartridge, usually made of tin, full of lead bullets. As the shot leaves the muzzle of the cannon, the canister immediately disintegrates from the air pressure, resulting in a conical spread of lead balls like the blast of a massive shotgun. At ranges of a few hundred yards, canister shot was absolutely devastating. Union artillerymen were often trained to aim just below and in front of advancing troops, so that the balls would skip off the ground and up in a wide arc, shattering limbs and piercing bodies.
Robert E. Lee knows that any successful charge on the Union lines will require the silencing of the Union artillery batteries. So, this morning, he begins a lengthy artillery barrage of his own, aimed to try to take out the Union guns. Meade orders his own artillery to respond, and the two sides begin an exchange that lasts for nearly 2 hours. One story, possibly legendary, will claim that Meade cleverly tells his artillerymen to cease firing one by one, leaving Lee and his generals to believe that they have successfully eliminated the threat of the Union artillery. The truth, slightly less romantic, is likely that the Union guns ceased fire in order to preserve their dwindling supplies of ammunition. In any case, after the barrage ended, over 12,000 Confederate troops, under the primary command of Major General George Pickett, marched from their covered positions and began to rapidly move across the nearly ¾ of a mile of open ground towards Cemetery Ridge.
The mostly untouched Union batteries of field guns, now loaded with the deadly canister shot, begin firing immediately, tearing massive holes in the Confederate lines long before they are even within rifle range of the Union troops. By the time the surviving Confederates are in range to begin their final charge towards the Union lines, their numbers are already devastated. And then things get worse. Lee’s assumption that Meade would have weakened his center in order to reinforce the flanks, while reasonable, has turned out to be disastrously incorrect. Instead, Meade guessed last night that Lee might attempt a central charge, and has quietly reinforced his center lines with fresh troops brought forward from reserve.
Even so, some Confederate troops manage to break through the Union lines, over a zig-zagging stone wall known to history as the Bloody Angle. They are too few, however, and the Union lines almost immediately close the gap. The few Confederates who break through are now isolated from the rest of their forces; their leader, Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, is mortally shot moments later, and his men are either killed or captured.
The famous charge is estimated to have resulted in more than 6,000 casualties on the Confederate side. Pickett retreats, and Lee recognizes that after this disaster his army no longer has any chance of dislodging the Union army from its position. Tomorrow, after only a few more minor cavalry skirmishes, he will retreat south, leaving Gettysburg, and particularly the Bloody Angle, as the farthest north that Confederate troops will ever reach in the entire course of the war. Northern voices which have been increasingly calling for making peace with the Confederacy since the Battle of Chancellorsville will fall silent, and the Union will gain new confidence that this war is in fact a winnable one.
July 3, 1913
Fifty years have passed. Over the last three days, over 50,000 veterans from both the Union and the Confederacy have gathered at Gettysburg to celebrate the semicentennial anniversary of the battle. The average age of the attending veterans is 72. They are housed in tents spread across acres of land. Monuments for both Union and Confederate soldiers are given ceremonial dedications. Today, the Union and Confederate veterans perform something of a reenactment of the final moments of Pickett’s charge, with white-bearded Confederate veterans marching, one must imagine a little more slowly than their youthful selves, up to the Bloody Angle, behind which Union veterans stand. When they meet, they shake hands across the stone wall upon which they had once spilled each other’s blood.
The days of the reunion have been marked by smaller and more intimate meetings, however. Veterans have attempted to find old friends from a lifetime ago, or reassemble their old regiments. This is difficult, as the tents have been organized by current state of residence, rather than by the state for which each soldier had fought. Nonetheless, many meetings are reported by the local and national newspapers.
The message of the reunion, from the individual moments to the speeches made by organizers, state governors, and tomorrow even by President Woodrow Wilson, is one of reconciliation. The battle, and the war itself, are discussed by veterans on both sides with the tone one might use to discuss memories of a heated sports contest. According to an contemporary article in the New York Times, a Union veteran who was photographed shaking hands with a Confederate counterpart over a cannon apparently leaned in, saying with a grin, “I’m mighty glad to do this, you know; but still, you know, we did lick you.”
Remarkably absent from the reunion is any sense of continued animosity between the veterans from either side. Last night, according to the July 3rd 1913 edition of the Gettysburg Times, a large group of veterans from the northern states marched on the tents of the southern side, calling out “We’ve got the Johnnies this time!” Confederate veterans responded “all right, boys, come on, we’re all ready for you!” When the Union veterans reached the Confederate veterans’ encampment, they all embraced, began to do impromptu parades arm in arm, and then sat around campfires exchanging stories for the remainder of the evening.
One Union soldier, Augustus Washburne, who lost an arm after a violent hand-to-hand struggle at the Bloody Angle, remembered vividly the face of the soldier who had done it. Two days ago, he returned to the spot where it happened, and found that very man, Confederate veteran James Burnett, already standing there. Burnett turned when Washburne approached, and apparently said “by Gosh, you’re the fellow!” The Gettysburg Times reports that within an hour, the two were fast friends, referring to one another as Jim and Gus.
Over the days of the reunion, many pictures will be taken of men in their ancient Confederate and Union uniforms arm in arm, shaking hands, or just sitting together and remembering their shared past. Some are heard to remark that no person who had not been present during these battles could ever truly understand their experiences; in that respect, they have more in common with their one time enemies than either does with the majority of the population.
Humanity has an unfortunate tendency to want to reduce complicated things to simple terms. We like to have good guys and bad guys. Noble knights and evil monsters. But people are rarely, if ever, entirely either. All people are capable of great evil and of great good. If we could know every intimate detail of every human life, I suspect we would have difficulty putting any of them on a pedestal–or condemning any as being wholly and irredeemably evil.
The men who had once fought at Gettysburg, on both sides, seem to have understood this. The men of the north did not demonize those of the south, but embraced them as brothers, even as they rejected their failed cause.
At the same time, we have to recognize that the reconciliation visible at the 1913 Gettysburg Reunion was solely a reconciliation between white veterans of North and South. A deeper reconciliation was still desperately needed, in a subtler conflict which was still ongoing. These were days of Jim Crow, segregation, and brutal lynchings. Black Americans whose status as free men and women had been determined by the outcome of the war were largely present in the Gettysburg reunion camp only as cooks and laborers, and the best account we have which references their presence describes them as being restricted and segregated in a single row of tents.
A recognition of the real valor and virtue of Confederate soldiers, in spite of the cause for which they had fought, was an important part of the reconciliation between North and South after the harrowing years of Reconstruction. Yet it may be reasonably argued that this reconciliation, absent any genuine penance over the institution of slavery and the institutionalized racism which followed it, merely served to solidify the position of those who remained implacable enemies of racial equality.
We are thus left with two definite truths. First, there were brave and honorable people who fought on the side of the Confederacy. Second, the Confederacy’s origin and its lasting legacy are intrinsically tied to racism and oppression. A hundred years ago Americans chose to embrace the first truth while ignoring the second, and thus purchased increased national unity at the cost of granting white supremacy a stronger foothold in the nation. But I suspect that a complete reversal, merely vilifying the Confederacy and all its members, will not only do little to combat white supremacy, but may even add fuel to the fire. When people are told that they ought to feel nothing but shame for their heritage, they become far more susceptible recruits for any group which tells them, on the contrary, that their heritage is a matter of pride and power. So is there a path forward which can embrace the whole, messy, and complicated truth? I don’t know, but I hope so.