The First Day, The First Time

“That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”–President Abraham Lincoln

“War is hell.”–General William Tecumseh Sherman

“War is not an adventure. It is a disease. It is like typhus.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupery, pilot, poet, author

I was 11 years old the first time I saw the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Although I did not fully understand all that happened there, the place made a lasting impression upon my mind and heart. And it has in the several visits I have made since that summer. My mother did not believe in the extravagance of guided tours, even if she could have afforded one, which she could not. She had a simple chart of the battlefield. She drove slowly around, parked wherever she could and we walked to all kinds of places, taking our time to look at monuments and statues and to read many plaques. We moved quietly and respectfully through the rows upon rows of graves. I remember looking in awe at the place where Lincoln gave his short, eloquent speech.

Gettysburg National Cemetery

There are well over 640 history books written just about the Battle of Gettysburg. Of course the battle is discussed in hundreds more books written about the Civil War, President Lincoln and others connected with the events of those three days. I’ve read only a handful and more articles than I can remember. Today, July 1, marks the date of the start of the battle. I’m reflecting on some of those people and events.

Determined to take the war into northern territory, General Robert E Lee launched an invasion of Pennsylvania in the last days of June, 1863. Lee himself entered Pennsylvania on June 27th. Lee’s forces were spread out like the prongs of pitchfork. He was hampered by a lack of communication with General Jeb Stuart, his dashing, rash but brilliant cavalry commander. As a result Lee’s infantry, artillery and supply columns marched somewhat blind in unfamiliar country and without cavalry protection. The Confederate forces, indeed, many parts of the South, were low on food stuffs, short of horses and without a solid industrial base to maintain a regular supply of weapons and ammunition.

Unlike what the Federal troops under General William Tecumseh Sherman would do in Georgia in 1864 and ‘65, Lee’s troops were ordered not to steal or plunder and to “pay” in Confederate script for goods taken. Not all soldiers followed these orders. Nonetheless, many Amish and Mennonite farmers as well as others gave water, milk, bread, butter, flour and bacon to the Confederates without resistance. Aware of a supply of shoes warehoused at Gettysburg and unaware of how close the Union forces really were, Confederates under General Heth headed for the area.

Southern soldiers under General Albert Jenkins seized black people in the areas around Mercersburg and Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. While a few were fugitive slaves, most were free born persons. Some managed to escape their captors; however, about 50 or more were shipped south into slavery.

Just as most Union soldiers who had been less than 35 miles from home before the start of the war, most Confederates had little idea of how others lived. Rebel officers expressed shock to see young white women, without shoes or bonnets, working in the fields. A Confederate infantyman wrote to his family, complaining that “Dutch and Irish girls” in Pennsylvania were “dirty and [the] meanest looking creatures to call themselves white girls.” Beer in Pennsylvania, brewed by German immigrants, proved to be much stronger than that known to many Southern lads. Officers and enlisted men over-indulged. Because of several days of rain, Confederate soldiers chose not to march on the muddy roads but rather through fields full of standing grain, damaging crops.


General Buford

On Tuesday, June 30th, two brigades of Federal cavalry, under the command of General John Buford, entered Gettysburg. Buford, like President Lincoln, was born in Kentucky. His family, including his father, owned slaves. He graduated from the military academy at West Point and served in combat against the Sioux on the western plains and with the Federal forces who had tried to end the bloodshed between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in “Bleeding Kansas,” a prelude to the current war. Buford correctly determined that Lee’s forces were headed away from the state capital at Harrisburg and had turned in a new direction. Despite being significantly out-numbered, Buford dismounted his troopers and determined to make a fight west of Gettysburg until General Meade could bring up the main Union forces. Buford’s men were well-armed with new Spencer 7-shot rifles which enabled them to fire as much twenty-one rounds per minute as compared to the Confederate infantry armed with muzzle-loading muskets who could, with experience, fire four rounds per minute. Most likely, Buford’s determination provoked a battle at a time and on terrain Lee had not chosen. However, despite his brilliant performance at Gettysburg, Buford, like many other generals from both armies, did not live to see the end of the war. He died on December 16th, 1863 in Washington, DC, probably from typhoid fever.

One of the statues I remember clearly from my first visit is a likeness of John Burns. By the standards of the time, he was quite elderly, being 69 years old and a veteran of the War of 1812. On that afternoon of July 1, 1863, as Confederate forces pushed toward the town, Burns shouldered his old musket and calmly joined the men of the 24th Regiment, Michigan Volunteer Infantry, known as the “Iron Brigade.” The tough young men respected the old man who stood with them, firing away until he suffered a minor wound. In November, 1863, John Burns met and walked with President Lincoln when Lincoln came to dedicate the national cemetery. Of the 496 men of the Iron Brigade who went into battle on July 1st, only 99 were present and fit for duty the next morning.

John Burns

The first infantry units to arrive in support of Buford were under the command of General John Reynolds. Reynolds hailed from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had also graduated from West Point, had combat experience in War with Mexico and against Native Americans. At age 42, he was considered smart, handsome and very well-liked by his troops. Reportedly, President Lincoln offered him the command of the Army of the Potomac to replace the ineffective General Hooker. Reynolds declined and Lincoln picked George Meade. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Reynolds wanted the kind of unrestricted command Lincoln later gave Ulysses S Grant. As Reynolds directed infantry into position, a bullet, most likely fired by a Confederate sharpshooter, entered his neck, knocking him from his horse and killing him almost instantly. His true love, Miss Kate Hewitt, learning of his death, entered a Roman Catholic convent in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Death of General Reynolds


The Lutheran Theological Seminary served Union officers and later Confederate officers as an observation tower and still later as a field hospital during the three days of battle. Ironically, one of the men who played a key role in founding the Seminary, Rev Samuel S Schmucker, was an active abolitionist. He used places at the Seminary and rooms in his own house as safe places for fugitive slaves escaping from the South. Union soldiers destroyed anti-slavery materials found at the Seminary to prevent the items from falling into Confederate hands. For two months after the battle, wounded soldiers from both sides were treated at the Seminary as well as in most churches and large buildings in town.

Lutheran Seminary

In 1925, Liberty Augusta Hollinger Clutz, at age 78, put down in writing her memories of the Battle of Gettysburg. She was 16 in July, 1863, one of five children in the Hollinger family living in the town. Her recollections are simply told and deeply moving. She wrote of how the Confederates took her father’s old horse and finding it too old to be useful, let it go and how they ransacked her father’s warehouse, destroying the foodstuffs they could not take with them. In her narration she mentioned how on the first day a young retreating Union soldier left his backpack with her mother and he never returned for it. She saw General Lee on horseback ride past her family’s house. On the second day of fighting, a distinguished looking Confederate doctor asked politely if he might rest a few moments on their porch. His uniform was bloody and caked with mud. When Augusta’s mother offered to feed him, he declined, saying that spending a morning amputating limbs left him with no appetite and he needed only a few minutes quiet to renew his soul. After the battle, she, her sisters and her parents spent days moving wounded off the field and nursing them as best they could. A young Union soldier in her care, a man from Portland, Maine, died the day before his mother arrived to take care of him. For months the young Augusta gathered up abandoned army coats and used them to cover skeletal remains which she and others kept finding. Later she married a Lutheran minister, Jacob Clutz, who taught for some years at the Lutheran Seminary.

Remains of dead horses after the battle

By sundown on July 3rd, the Union forces had sustained 23,049 dead, wounded and missing; the Confederates, 28,063 dead, wounded and missing. Lee managed to disengage and make a painful retreat into Maryland. The cautious General Meade waited and then moved slowly in pursuit, much to Lincoln’s annoyance. Meanwhile, out west, a feisty, short-of-stature, bearded, hard-drinking general named Ulysses S Grant, captured Vicksburg, Mississippi and would provide Lincoln the kind of general the President wanted.

During the Civil War, at least 646,392 Americans were killed or wounded by other Americans. They accounted for 1.96% of the total population. In the South, in 1865, 1 of every 4 white males over age 16 was dead or permanently disabled. Compare those numbers with approximately 50,000 Americans killed or wounded in the Revolution; 211,454 killed or wounded in Vietnam; 320,518 killed or wounded in the First World War.

Unfinished grave of Confederate dead

I tell students that the Civil War was the defining American experience in our 235 years of history. And the issues are still not resolved. Looking at the newspapers, blogs, and television and listening to the radio I still hear the debate of federal power versus states’ rights, the place of African Americans in our society and the meaning and intent of the Constitution as modified by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Have those honored dead really died in vain? I think we don’t yet have a definitive answer.

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”–Jeannette Rankin, one of 50 members of the House of Representatives who voted against U S entry in World War One in 1917.

“War is the unfolding of miscalculations.”–Barbara Tuchman, historian, author of The Guns of August.

“In peace, children inter their parents; war violates the order of nature and causes parents to inter their children.” Herodotus, Greek historian (circa 484-425, B C E).

“No one can claim to be called Christian who gives money for the building of warships and arsenals.”–Belva Ann Lockwood, first woman lawyer to practice before the U S Supreme Court and vice-president of the Universal Peace Union.

About the Civil War, Lockwood wrote, “No woman voted a subsidy to maintain it . . . . when the great outlay of blood and treasure is summed up, including the amount paid and to be paid for pensions, enough money would have been peaceably spent to have bought out of bondage every slave.”–Lockwood in Lippincott’s Magazine, February, 1888.

Attorney Belva Lockwood

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