An account of one incident on Gettysburg’s second day from Shelby Foote, who died earlier this week (Slate published this analysis of his complex place in Civil War lore and historiography on Friday):
“[Union General Winfield Scott Hancock] ordered Gibbon and Hays to double-time southward along the ridge and use what was left of their commands to plug the gap the rebels were about to strike.
“He hurried in that direction, ahead of his troops, and arrived in time to witness the final rout of Humphreys, whose men were in full flight by now, with Wilcox close on their heels and driving hard for the scantily defended ridge beyond. As he himself climbed back up the slope on horseback, under heavy fire from the attackers, Hancock wondered how he was going to stop or even delay them long enough for a substantial line of defense to be formed on the high ground. Gibbon and Hays ‘had been ordered up and were coming on the run,’ he later explained, ‘but I saw that in some way five minutes must be gained or we were lost.’ Just then the lead regiment of Gibbon’s first brigade came over the crest in a column of fours, and Hancock saw a chance to gain those five minutes, though at a cruel price.
” ‘What regiment is this?’ he asked the officer at the head of the column moving toward him down the slope.
” ‘First Minnesota,’ Colonel William Colvill replied.
“Hancock nodded. ‘Colonel, do you see those colors?’ As he spoke he pointed at the Alabama flag in the front rank of the charging rebels. Colvill said he did. ‘Then take them,’ Hancock told him.
“Quickly, though scarcely a man among them could have failed to see what was being asked of him, the Minnesotans deployed on the slope … 262 men present for duty … and charging headlong down it, bayonets fixed, struck the center of the long gray line. … The Confederates recoiled briefly, then came on again, yelling fiercely as they concentrated their fire on this one undersized blue regiment. The result was devastating. Colvill and all but three of his officers were killed or wounded, together with 215 of his men. A captain brought the 47 survivors back up the ridge, less than one fifth as many as had charged down it. They had not taken the Alabama flag, but had held onto their own. And they had given Hancock his five minutes, plus five more for good measure.”
Gettysburg, First Day:
“… Wadsworth’s division was falling back…, the rebs pushing rapidly on and cheering. They were also attacking the Eleventh Corps at the same time. The Cashtown Road being our most important point, each one had aimed to take care of it. Robinson had ordered Stewart (Battery B, 4th US) to take post on each side of the railroad. Doubleday had ordered Stevens (Battery E, 5th Maine Artillery) from where I had placed him at the left to the road itself. Cooper (Battery B, 1st Pennsylvania) had his four guns immediately in front of the main building… Thus there eighteen pieces on a frontage of not over two hundred yards. But there was no time to make changes, for the rebs were coming steadily on down the ridge in front only five hundred yards off and all the guns were blazing away at them as lively as possible. In a little time I went to the right and front of (Lieutenant) Wilbur’s section, one piece of which was on the Cashtown Road. I found Lieutenant Davison had thrown his half of Battery ‘B’ around so as to get an oblique, almost enfilading fire on the rebel lines. His round shot, together with the canister poured in from all other guns, was cutting great gaps in the front line of the enemy. But still they came on, the gaps being closed by regiments from the second line, and this again filled up a third column which was coming over the hill. Never have I seen such a charge. Not a man seemed to falter. Lee may well be proud of his infantry; I wish ours was equal up to it.”
–From “A Diary of Battle, The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865”
Still thinking about Lincoln and the current Bush and whether they would have been on the same side during the current or former unpleasantness. I figured the White House must have had a Lincoln’s Birthday event that might shed some light on the question. Checking the White House site, sure enough: George and Laura hosted a performance of “Lincoln Seen and Heard,” a dramatic presentation of some of the 16th president’s speeches and writings. Sam Waterston, who was Lincoln’s voice for Ken Burns’s Civil War series, presented the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. The latter was delivered about five weeks before Lee surrendered at Appomattox; it had finally become clear which way the way would go. Yet Lincoln’s words, which he knew would be read in the South, are entirely without a sense of triumph. Bush could have learned something from that before he put the flight suit on and flew out to that carrier. But of course, if he was liable to learn a lesson like that, he wouldn’t be our George.
At the end of the evening, Bush talked briefly about what he had heard. He said Lincoln was our greatest president. And he hinted, of course, that Lincoln’s words bolster his program to shock and awe the world’s evildoers out of existence with high explosives and the wonders of democracy:
“The Civil War was decided on the battlefield; the larger fight for America’s soul was waged with Lincoln’s words. In his own day, Lincoln set himself squarely against a culture that held that some human beings were not intended by their Maker for freedom. And as President, he acted in the conviction that holding the Union together was the only way to hold America true to the founding promise of freedom and equality for all. And that is why, in my judgment, he was America’s greatest President.
“We’re familiar with the words of the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural, so eloquently read by Sam. And this performance reminds us that Lincoln wrote his words to be spoken aloud — to persuade, to challenge, and to inspire. Abraham Lincoln was a master of the English language, but his true mother tongue was liberty.
“I hope that every American might have the experience we had here tonight, to hear Lincoln’s words delivered with Lincoln’s passion, and to leave with a greater appreciation for what these words of freedom mean in our own time.”
Here’s an oft-quoted passage from William Faulkner (from “Intruder in the Dust,” which no, I have not read) that grabs a lot of people:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….
As a northerner and as someone who grew up believing (and who still believes) that the Civil War was fought in the most just of causes — ultimately, to end slavery — it’s probably impossible to fully appreciate the feelings Faulkner’s evoking there. Yes, history’s full of moments of barely missed opportunity, of heroes thwarted, of big “what if” moments. What if Lincoln hadn’t been at Ford’s Theatre? What if Bobby Kennedy had lived? But what Faulkner is talking about is where history blends into myth. In some important way, it doesn’t take into account a moral dimension of the event it interprets. What if Lee had prevailed at Gettysburg (that’s the premise for a series of historical novels being written by Newt Gingrich, by the way)? Yeah — and what if the Soviets hadn’t stopped Hitler at Stalingrad? Sure, we have a wish that true valor had some reward beyond a glorified version of “nice try” and a bullet in the chest. But part of the reason we can look back and daydream about these episodes is because they came out the way they did. The Faulkner quote reminds me of another that kicks around in my head, from Grant’s account of Lee’s surrender at Appamattox:
“I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the
sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”