Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Gettysburg

I have been a professional historian my entire working life . . . correction, it's what I am, not what I do, and I suppose I've been a historian since the days of my early youth when the American Civil War captured me for life. As a kid, born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, I was fortunate to have spent hours in the sprawling national military park there even before I was a teenager. For my money, Vicksburg is still the best Civil War park, but now, having spent a careful couple of days at the Gettysburg park, I can tell you that this one is a close second.

There's no learning about a battle like the learning you get from actually seeing the ground. I can attest that the mental pictures I had of the battlefield, drawn from reading and photographs only slightly resembled the reality I confronted on those two days. What have I told people since? Well, that I learned a ton.

But one of the thousands of Gettysburg dead
And part of what I learned, or more accurately, recalled was the old lesson that has been on my heart ever since I first grasped what war is all about a long time ago. War is not about ideals. It's not about freedom. It's not about any of the worthy causes and aims we cloak it with to somehow justify its horror in our minds. War is first and foremost about killing. Killing young people. Killing innocent people. Killing whoever is in the way. It's about cruelty and destruction. It's about death and tears. And it is the grossest of all obscenities. War, any war, solves nothing. They all serve the same purpose. They serve as but introductions to the next war.

I can tell you that from another source, we know that the poor pitiful remnants of what used to be a young man pictured above was likely a Georgian in Semmes Brigade. He died on July 2, 1863 in a field adjoining the Rose Woods. He was photographed on July 5. An artillery shell has ripped him nearly in half and blown off his left arm. The photographer has staged some items into the picture: the canteen, rifle, and artillery shell doubtless to increase (quite unnecessarily) the drama of the shot. The body has already bloated in the July heat. One can only imagine the stench, the vast swarm of flies . . . This is the glory of war.

How many people were killed at Gettysburg? A horrendous number. The "official" tally puts the total death around 8,000. Historians since have revised the number upward to the neighborhood of 12,000. Total casualties at the battle were over 51,000 killed, wounded, and missing (almost surely dead)/captured.

The museum, the cyclorama, the film and etc. in the Visitors' Center did not do much for me. I know all that stuff already. I walked around for two days with the dead, suffering, and tragedy constantly on my mind. They are still.
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