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Sunday, July 07, 2013

Gettysburg is Not a Nostalgic American History Lesson

Letter to the editor in the Maine Sunday Telegram July 7, 2013:

Celebration of Gettysburg glorifies massive atrocity

(Dear Editor)  Maybe you could explain to me why thousands of people gather together to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg ("Gettysburg: 'A most unexpected battle,'" June 30).

Eight thousand Americans were killed at that battle in two days, leaving how many thousands of children without fathers; how many grieving parents and wives; and forever changing the lives of thousands more soldiers who lost limbs and sanity. Mourning, forgetting, praying for forgiveness for such an atrocity, I can understand. But re-enacting? I don't get it.

War is a tragedy and a massive moral failure of somebody. And, in my opinion, those who celebrate it glorify what they should be mourning.

Donald F. Fontaine
Falmouth Maine

One attribute of being a blogger is how a person, like me, can sometimes become an expert of the moment, on nearly any issue.  Gettysburg is one example.

I'm nowhere near a history major or even particularly well informed about the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).  

Although I've visited the battlefields of Gettysburg, they are so sad, it's hard to stay for very long.  As a matter of fact, I'm more enamored by the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, located in nearby Emmitsburg, Maryland. 

Nevertheless,  I took exception when the Military Channel recently played a history about the Battle of Gettysburg, whereby the opening sound bites were from two high ranking US military officers, who told viewers how the South's General Robert E. Lee was a wonderful, if not one of America's greatest, generals. 

Therefore, as an expert blogger who's not particularly well informed about the Battle of Gettysburg, this what I have to say about those praise comments about Robert E. Lee:

1.  Even I know how an advancing army must take advantage of a surprise attack.  General Robert E. Lee certainly didn't surprise the Union Army when he decided to invade Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.  Everyone seemed to know what was forthcoming.  Moreover, Lee didn't have a resistance army in place to sabotage the Union's defenses.

2.  General Robert E. Lee was outnumbered at the Battle of Gettysburg and he knew it.

3.  Union positions at Gettysburg were on the high ground, forcing Lee's Confederate Army to fight uphill.  Lee had to know this was not strategically desirable.  Surely, Lee studied the Battle of Bunker Hill when he attended West Point Military Academy (in fact, he graduated second in his class!).  In fact, reference US military history, the British won the Battle of Bunker Hill, albeit with considerable losses, when they defeated the Revolutionary Army; but they never again engaged in frontal battles against the Americans, as a result. Why did the British win at The Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston?  Because they fought from the high ground. (General Thomas Gage tried to decide how best to deploy his 5,000 British regulars. He realized that whichever side could take control of the high ground of Charlestown, Roxbury Heights, and Dorchester Heights would have the advantage in a battle.) General Lee may have forgotten his military war history

4. General Lee ordered "Pickett's Charge" without realizing how the Emmitsburg Road would have saved his troops from slaughter as they climbed an obstructing fence to advance on the Union line.
Somebody should have torn this fence down before the charge - but, again, Lee had no resistance support to do this.  Yet, if Confederate troops had known to use the road instead of climbing the fence, they could have gone around the obstruction to reform their battle lines. Instead, General Pickett's Charge tuned into chaos when a fence prevented the charging Confederate solders from defending themselves as they climbed, while creating unobstructed targets for the Union guns.  Recent Civil War research suggests there may have been many hundreds of Confederate soldiers who left at this point, because they realized the futility of their advancing charge.  General Lee retreated after being unable to penetrate the Union line with Pickett's Charge.  A General should certainly know the terrain where a battle is going on; so it's mystifying as to why neither Lee nor his subordinates knew about the Emmitsburg road or, if they did, why they didn't think to use it. 

To end, I don't think General Robert E. Lee was an especially good general.  By agreeing to lead the Confederate Army, he was surely defending a Southern way of life he believed in, or maybe, he just didn't care for President Abraham Lincoln. But, he wasn't a particularly brilliant military strategist. 

Thousands of people died and many more lives were devastated during a very hot three days in July, on the battle fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Although it was a turning point in the war, pointing to a Union victory, it took another two years and thousands of more lives lost before Robert E. Lee surrendered.

Certainly, Gettysburg is a history lesson we should always commemorate, but praise for the Confederate General Robert E. Lee is misplaced.

Gettysburg is not a time or event to re-create nostalgia.  Rather, it's a period in American history that should never have happened.

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