The happy chaos of a large family vacation to a historical battlefield town doesn’t leave much time for the kind of reflection I like to put into a Litkicks blog post.
It does, however, lend itself to some pretty good jokes. When I arrived at Gettysburg first in one car with some luggage and Caryn showed up later in another with more, I was able to call her “my supply train”. When a member of our party neglected to text me with some essential info about where we were all meeting for dinner, I was able to quote General Robert E. Lee to the lost Cavalry chief J. E. B. Stuart: “You are my eyes and ears. Without you I am blind.”
But, philosophical reflection and literary wit? That will have to wait, and numbered impressions will have to do for now.
1. HATING ON JOSHUA CHAMBERLAIN
The photo above was taken from near the peak of Little Round Top, the small hill where four Union regiments put up a ferocious defense on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. On the left, you see Devil’s Den, where another ferocious battle was also fought on the same day. This photo was taken at nearly the exact moment 150 years after the first assault on the hill. Many people had gathered to be there for the moment, and a beautiful speech was delivered by a Gettysburg Park Ranger named Bill Hewitt to a large crowd.
The battles at Little Round Top and Devil’s Den were scrappy, bloody affairs, and multi-faceted stories of heroism and ingenuity have abounded from both. Probably the most famous story is the one that concludes the fighting on July 2: realizing that his 20th Maine regiment at the top of the hill was out of ammunition and that the Alabama boys were coming back up yet again, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge — in 1863, this was considered a surprising throwback to earlier, less technologically advanced forms of war — that so stunned the Alabama regiment that they ran away, and Maine held the hill.
This incident became legendary even before the Civil War was over, but the level of mythology increased after actor Jeff Daniels presented a brilliantly drawn Joshua Chamberlain in the movie Gettysburg, highlighting the character’s gentle personality and vulnerability even at the moment that he orders the bayonet charge. This is a deft moment of cinema, but it was so effective that today it seems there is a strong undercurrent of resentment towards Col. Joshua Chamberlain among the amateur historians and battlefield guides at Little Round Top. Time and again, I heard references to the fact that Gouvernour Warren’s contributions to the victory were underrated, or that Vincent Strong deserved all the credit, or that the New York regiments and Pennsylvania regiments might have had a little something to do with the Union victory at Little Round Top along with the 20th Maine.
I’m sure this is true, but I am a little perturbed to see that there are so many Joshua Chamberlain-haters out there. I wonder if it is in the nature of war to inspire as much jealousy as love. This is a question I’d like to consider further soon.
2. IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PICKETT’S CHARGE
At 3 pm on July 3, 2013, I gathered with my kids at the Virginia Memorial near Seminary Ridge to recreate Pickett’s Charge with a very large group. We walked the length of Pickett’s Charge, and it was a stirring event even though nobody was shooting canister at us as we clamored over the fence at Emmitsberg Road. My daughter Liz was a little perturbed at all the Confederate flags and symbols that surrounded us, but I really didn’t detect any racism or hatred or Southern anger at this commemorative event — none at all. It was a family kind of mood — lots of parents with kids, people of all ages and types, even a couple of brave people making the long charge through the tall grass in wheelchairs, which can’t be easy. I believe we were all united in our respect for history. Afterwards, my family ate dinner at General Pickett’s Buffet, where the food was surprisingly good.
3. WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN EGYPT?
Being a news junkie, if I were not on a weeklong family vacation I would certainly have been closely following the news from Egypt, where President Morsi has apparently been overthrown in a military coup on July 3, 150 years to the day after the final confrontation of the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, I caught a quick news report after returning to the hotel. So what’s going on? Is this a positive step for Egypt, for the Middle East, for the world? Is it a bad thing? Does anybody know? It’s hard for me to figure out from a 90-second televised news blast, but in fact I get the feeling that other news junkies who’ve been following each new development in real time for the past few days don’t know either. I guess I didn’t miss much by living in the historical past for the last three days, instead of living in the present. Maybe the historical past is really where we all live, though we rarely realize that this is true.