I’m perched near the peak of Little Round Top in Gettysburg National Military Park. One hundred and fifty years ago, 6,000 men and boys died on this 2-square mile of Pennsylvania rock for some vague notion — country, love, hate, honor. Fifty-one thousand casualties over three days of relentless shot, shell, heat and fear.
Here on Little Round Top, as was probably the case along the entire 2-mile-long front, the question was when would, not if, the attacking force run out of determination before the defending force ran out of courage. It must have been horrible. An uphill charge. Through and around the Devil’s Den, a boulder-strewn funnel that opened into the Slaughter Pen. How many men found shelter behind a boulder the size of wagon or a shallow ditch and just decided this was enough for one day?
I can hear some authoritative voice describing to a bored ear the significance of the carbine versus the smoothbore musket and what happened at 2:05 p.m. July 2 that was, said Authoritative Voice, significant. I watched middle-aged men thrust out their chests before wheezing. And I saw middle-aged women glaze over, lost in wonder, I hoped, about husbands and sons taken by a cause that split the country apart. Maybe they were hoping it never happens again.
It is also true that there were worse fights and more deaths before and after Gettysburg. This was a shooting war that could be traced from John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry to another turning point not at Appomattox, but nearly 100 years later in Little Rock, Ark. Two men named Brown book-ended the clash over the most basic question ever confronted by the United States.
A question lost on the nine bus-loads of kids who enjoyed running across the rocky terrain of Little Round Top. Maybe lost on the cool, hip Segway riders, too. Lost perhaps on the thousands of families and couples and official tour guides, all of whom think Gettysburg is a place to visit, take some pictures (with Abe!), sip coffee, and glance over the mile of rolling ground between the two fronts. That is, if they bother to get out of their cars. As if this is some kind of a drive-by history lesson. Been there. Done that. Bought the T-shirt. (They aren’t cheap, either.)
While the Gettysburg battlefield (and Shiloh, Stones River and Chattanooga) was established to memorialize the dead, it has also become a considerable tourist enterprise not much different from any other tourist enterprise.
In fairness, though, we should strive to remind ourselves what is important to our present lives and recall what dues have been paid so we may live the way we do. I don’t know that we always get the message. Even the attempts at living history seem to sometimes deafen the story. And at the end of the day everyone goes for coffee.
Tennessee history and American history have become board games and soon there will be an app for that, too.
As I heard more and more statistics of the dying and as I heard more and more unnecessary comments about the inaccuracy of other expert commentary, I wondered if the dead no longer counted for anything. Expect being a statistic. I discovered myself leaning just a bit farther towards the pacifist side, damning the waste of human spirit and life. But I also recognized that the future of the country in 1860 would not be settled by pacifists. Neutrality was not an option.
I wanted someone to tell me what it must have been like to march up this long hill, into the barrels of cannon and thousands upon thousands of rifle muzzles, to see your fellow soldiers blasted out of their shoes by cannon balls and shot. I wanted someone to tell me what the fear must have been like to wait at the rock fences, not panicking, worried about being able to stop this grey juggernaut whose reputation preceded itself.
Many men must have been stupid with fear. They pinned their names on their uniforms so they could be identified afterwards. They got drunk. They probably fouled their pants. It may have been comforting to know that God was on their side, but that didn’t deflect bullets. And then dying, gasping for air or for water, calling out to mother and God, staring up at the bright sky. It must have been awful.
But, this is how we treat history. I haven’t decided if it is a good treatment or a bad treatment.
Charles Moore lives in Johnson City.