This is the last of five blog posts inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I struggle to write this one today, I’m forced to admit two things that you’ll very rarely ever hear me say.
First, I feel humbled. Second, I am at a loss for words.
At 3 pm on July 3, I walked with a large group of people across the battlefield in the footsteps of Confederate General James Longstreet’s infantry assault against the center of the Union Line. This assault was the most dramatic and destructive single action of the entire American Civil War, and it was a march so desperate that General Longstreet himself urged Robert E. Lee against the attempt. Many thousands of men walked directly over open ground into cannon fire and massed companies of riflemen, and many thousands of Confederate and Union soldiers died at the spot. A very good (though admittedly cinematic) depiction of this assault can be seen in this 29-minute segment from Ronald Maxwell’s excellent 1993 film Gettysburg.
I wanted to write a great philosophical blog post about my thoughts during this commemorative walk, but instead the walk left me feeling intellectually humbled. It was a friendly walk, alongside many strangers of many backgrounds, a walk that was pleasant under a beautiful sky, a walk that ended much more quickly than I expected. (I daresay the walk also ended more quickly than many of the original soldiers expected, too). Afterwards, anything I began write for this blog post seemed trivial next to the sacrifice that these soldiers paid for their dubious but deeply earnest cause.
I could write about the military disaster at Gettysburg as a case study for pacifism, an illustration of the blind folly of war. But, really, what do I know of war? It’s hard to stand on this battle ground and prattle about pacifism with any feeling of authority.
I could talk about slavery, or about American values. Based on the license plates I spotted all over Gettysburg National Park from July 1 to July 3, there were many tourists there from many parts of the country: Georgia and Florida, Texas and Louisiana, Massachusetts and Vermont, Kentucky and Ohio, also plenty of Colorado and California and Oregon and Alaska, and even plenty of Canada. However, I spotted only a few African-American or Hispanic families during the three days of the 150th commemoration. That’s an interesting reminder of how fluid the notion of “American history” is. I suppose African-Americans have different kinds of battles from the last 150 years to commemorate. I thought there might be a Hispanic presence at this event due to the fact that the American Civil War was a clear legacy of the American Mexican War a generation earlier (most of the Civil War commanders were veterans of the Mexican War), but if there was any Hispanic presence, I did not spot it. Perhaps the historical significances of many of these American cultural legacies have yet to be explored.
I started to write a blog post about this idea, but threw it away because I wasn’t really sure whether or not I had anything valid to say.
So what could I write? I could write about states rights and the principle of government by consent, but these are hot-button issues today, and the last thing I want to do is stir up another Internet argument about Rand Paul.
On a separate front, I have also written directly about Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg in a couple of past Litkicks blog posts titled The Case Against Egoism and The Shock of the Self. In both of these articles, I discussed Pickett’s Charge as a case study for a psychological argument — specifically, my contention that a group of people may in some special circumstances act as a group self, and will abandon all regard for individual motivation. The Confederate assault on July 3, 1863 is a clear example for this because, as I wrote, many of the individual soldiers must have felt fear as they approached the fatal Union line, but history records that the Confederate brigades moved forward as a collective unit without fear.
I believe this is a valid observation, but as I walked across the battlefield I did not feel that I was honoring the brave soldiers who died on this day by turning them into a psychological case study. So I didn’t want to commemorate the event by writing about this again either.
In short, I feel humbled. A guy feels like a jerk waxing wise about anything — pacifism, ethnicity, psychology — while walking in the footsteps of an infantry assault that killed thousands of brave souls. So I decided to just show you a couple of pictures I took instead. At the top of the page, we’re crossing the fence at Emmitsburg Road. Below is the view behind me to my left as we climbed a ridge. In the first and third photos, you can see the legendary copse of trees that is the destination of Longstreet’s assault. These group photos show only one of nine “brigades” that walked together at 3 pm on July 3.
And, finally, here’s a quote from the Bhagavad-Gita, from the ancient Hindu epic The Mahabharata, which also describes a battle scene:
Steadfastly the will
Must toil thereto, till efforts end in ease,
And thought has passed from thinking. Shaking off
All longings bred by dreams of fame and gain,
Shutting the doorways of the senses close
With watchful ward; so, step by step, it comes
To gift of peace assured and heart assuaged,
When the mind dwells self-wrapped, and the soul broods
Cumberless. But, as often as the heart
Breaks — wild and wavering — from control, so oft
Let him recurb it, let him rein it back
To the soul’s governance; for perfect bliss
Grows only in the bosom tranquillized,
The spirit passionless, purged from offence,
Vowed to the Infinite.