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This is the archive for July 2008

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Fourth of July, America!



National Parks Service photo

Having spent July 2nd at Gettysburg, my thoughts have been consumed by the battle that took place there 145 years ago. I’m not going out on a limb, but some who read this are going to cry sacrilege and probably condemn me to hell. After all, Gettysburg is the holiest of holy Civil War shrines. Please understand, I do not intend any disrespect to the battlefield or the men who fought and who died there. Quite simply, though, I don’t buy into the theory that Gettysburg was the “High Water Mark,” nor do I believe “Pickett’s Charge” represented the Confederacy’s last gallant grasp at military victory.

I believe that the surrender of Vicksburg, announced on July 4, 1863, was probably more important in bringing the Union closer victory than Gettysburg. Vicksburg’s fall effectively cut the Confederacy in half and gave the Union an unimpeded water route from major midwestern cities to New Orleans. Too, the war didn’t end with Gettysburg. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia remained an effective fighting force in the East for well over a year following their retreat into Virginia.

To me the “High Water Mark” is represented by Grant’s strategy following the Wilderness Campaign. Rather than licking his wounds and turning back toward Washington, as previous Union commanders would have elected to do, Grant pushed on. He pushed on at a terrible cost in lives, but each thrust resulted in Lee himself repositioning his forces closer to Richmond, until both armies finally entrenched in front of Petersburg.

That Gettysburg was not the “High Water Mark” is also evident by social unrest and political events in the North that followed and continued unabated almost up to the 1864 Presidential election. Until Atlanta fell, Lincoln believed he stood a snowball’s chance in hell of being re-elected. Would McClellan have declared an armistice and entered into immediate peace negotiations with Jefferson Davis? That’s debatable, but not likely at the outset of his term in office. McClellan, while not invested in emancipation, was supremely loyal to his country and the men who had served under him. As unlikely is the possibility that Davis would have settled for anything less than complete independence for the South.

There’s no doubt as to Gettysburg’s place in our history. The veterans who oversaw the placement of their monuments recognized its significance shortly after the conclusion of the fighting. We, who have had the honor of making the pilgrimage over the past 145 years, are the generations for who the monuments were intended. But the war went on and on and on. Gettysburg, in so many respects, makes the vast majority of Americans lose sight of that fact.