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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Battle that Saved the Union

“..that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln November 19, 1863

During this Memorial Day weekend there has been a continuous stream of war movies shown on the Turner Classic Movie Channel and documentaries on the Military Channel. After watching such classics like; Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Destination Tokyo, Flying Leathernecks, and Objective Burma I decided to watch my DVD of the 1993 film Gettysburg. I felt it was most appropriate for the family to watch this great and accurate film about the battle that saved the Union.

Gettysburg depicts a battle that raged from July 1 through July 3, 1863 around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A brief description of the battle is:

“The battle with the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War, it is often described as the war's turning point. Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ending Lee's invasion of the North.

After his success at Chancellorsville in Virginia in May 1863, Lee led his armyGettysburg_Campaign through the Shenandoah Valley to begin his second invasion of the North—the Gettysburg Campaign. With his army in high spirits, Lee intended to shift the focus of the summer campaign from war-ravaged northern Virginia and hoped to influence Northern politicians to give up their prosecution of the war by penetrating as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia. Prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit, but was relieved just three days before the battle and replaced by Meade.

Elements of the two armies initially collided at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there, his objective being to engage the Union army and destroy it. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division under Brig. Gen. John Buford, and soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.

On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. In the late afternoon of July 2, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. All across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.

On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp's Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, known as Pickett's Charge. The charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire, at great losses to the Confederate army. Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle. That November, President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.” [Source: Wikipedia]

While watching the movies my wife and daughter began asking questions like; What was the purpose of the battle, why were the men wearing so much facial hair, why was the language so polite and why the officers so melancholy over having to fight each other? These questions made me think of how much we really know of the War Between the States these days. Outside of the brilliant PBS documentary, The Civil War, by Ken Burns, and the film Glory there has not been many films of not about the Civil War.

Most K-12 textbooks devote little insight to the Civil War with the exception of the issue of slavery, and they do that with a biased and superficial manner. Unless you take advanced college history classes covering the period of the Civil War, read numerous books or tour the battlefields like; Antietam, Fredericksburg, Manassas or Gettysburg you will not learn much of our nations war to preserve the Union.

Fortunately I have had the opportunity to visit those battlefields with my brother. It was several years that my brother and I visited Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Manassas and a few years before that that my brother and his wife and me and my wife visited Gettysburg. While at Gettysburg we toured the entire battlefield, a national battlefield monument that is dotted with plaques and memorials to the men, both Union and Confederate, who fought and died there. There also was an interesting scene being played out while we there. There was a group of kids there under the tutelage of an instructor. The instructor had made the kids walk the entire mile across the field where General Picket had his men attack the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. When the kids arrived at the stone wall where the Union forces were massed the teacher explained how the men must have felt after charging up this hill and how exhausted they must have been. Then he went on to explain what had happened during the battle. To me this must have been one great teacher.

146 years after the end of the Civil War we, as a nation, are still felling its effects especially as more and more people are concerned over the growing power of the federal government in Washington. People are beginning to read the Constitution and are learning the meaning of the Tenth Amendment.

To know the Civil War one must know the Constitution. This is necessary if you want to understand why so many military officers, graduates of West Point, joined the Confederacy. This is especially true for Virginians, people who believe they were loyal to the principles of the founders from Virginia.

It was Lincoln, the most reviled President in the history of this Republic, who knew that the Union must be preserved for if we fell back to a confederation of states the nation would eventually fall apart and be subject to domination from European powers. Preserving the Union was what the Civil War was about. While Lincoln was against slavery and was on record of opposing it he did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until after the battle of Antietam when he was in dire need of recruits for the Union Army and to placate the radicals and abolitionists in the northern states.

The Union had been losing battles and generals up to July of 1863 when Lincoln appointed Meade in command of the Union Army. On the other side Lee was moving his army north and had crossed the Potomac into Pennsylvania with designs on reaching Washington with his armistice demands. This would have spelled disaster for the North. This did not happen due to Lee’s miscalculations and the heroic stand of Joshua Chamberlin and the 20th Maine at a place on the extreme right flank of the battle at a place called Little Round Top. It was the 20th Maine, an under staffed regiment, that repulsed attack after attack by Confederate troops trying to flank the Union lines and encircle General Hancock on Cemetery Ridge.

This stand by Chamberlin forced Lee to order Longstreet to mass over 15,000 CSA troops in the center of the battlefield to attempt a charge over one mile of open field towards the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. The charge, under the command of General George Pickett was met with fierce artillery and musket fire killing or wounding almost 60% of Pickett’s men.

This charge was the high-water mark of the Confederate advance and while the war would go on for two more years the Lee’s troops never again threatened the Capitol. Lee’s forced would win some more battles but after Gettysburg the tide of war swung to the Union.

On November 19, 1863 Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate the cemetery where many of the Union soldiers were buried. He gave one of the greatest speeches that any politician has ever given in this nation — The Gettysburg Address. This is Lincoln’s 268 word address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—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, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We need our schools to teach about the War Between the States with truth and accuracy — not with bias and political correctness. Our future citizens should have some fundamental knowledge of what caused the war, what it was about, how it was won and the aftermath of Reconstruction. They should learn something of the people who fought and died in the war. They should understand what it meant to this nation and how it has affected us to this day. When this happens perhaps we will not have people like Whoopi Goldberg screaming the states’ rights means a return to slavery.

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