Thoughts on Gettysburg, 150 years later

To soften the blow of forcing the family to spend part of vacation wandering around Gettysburg, I took them to Hershey Park first. It was a hot day, spent mostly splashing around various water rides and standing in long lines made longer by having to wait until the person actually using the ride was completely away from it before letting the next person down.

It is a fun amusement park, and after 6 got a lot less crowded. We had good fun. Though I found something mournful about being up high at Hershey Park, on rides like the Kissing Tower, and seeing the remnants of the old Hershey factory, which will be replaced by something else.

I shouldn’t mourn the loss of aged factories, of course. Technologies emerge, markets develop, it’s part of the course of business. Hershey’s the company isn’t dead, because an aged factory disappears. A new, more efficient factory will be built, apparently in Mexico, and Hershey’s runs two other, newer factories in its namesake town. Why should I mourn that the factory is gone and the amusement park persists? Should I mourn that the stadium where Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game, also next to Hershey Park, no longer hosts basketball games? The fact of the game is what matters, not where it was played. Wishing a factory were still on the same spot it ever was is a maudlin misapplication of mental energy.

I am happy we have preserved Gettysburg, the battlefield, and not turned it into a mall or some other monument to the modern economy. I had read Allen C. Guelzo’s new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, before coming. It’s a decent book, approaches narrative history in a number of points, and incidentally offers a study in management: Guelzo makes the point that both generals, Lee and Meade, avoided micro-managing or even telling their subordinates what to do. They allowed them a good deal of freedom. Guelzo argues that Lee’s commanders didn’t act as aggressively as they should have: “They were too new at corps command to have shaken the smaller-scale habits of brigade and division command, and no longer operating on ground that gave them the confidence to act aggressively.” As for Meade, his “problem was the exact opposite of Lee’s…restraining his subordinates from acting as though he didn’t exist.”

Meade had run the Army of the Potomac for three days; his commanders thought of him as at best their peer. Guelzo argues that John Reynolds set the course of the battle (the movie “Gettysburg” puts cavalry commander John Buford in that role). Reynolds, Buford and other Union generals were certainly spoiling for a fight, more than Meade was, and their aggressiveness clearly surprised and vexed the Confederates.

I had arranged to have a park ranger give us a tour in our car, driving around the battlefield and seeing key points of the three-day conflagration. The terrain made it clear why the South suffered so many “martyrs of a fallen cause,” as Henry Timrod put it in Ode at Magnolia Cemetery.

Little Round Top is steep and easy to defend. Cemetery Hill lends itself to a strong defensive position. Pickett’s “Charge” made its way along a mile of open ground. And yet Lee’s army came so close to winning.

The place is just old farmland, and yet it feels special. Timrod’s poem ends:

“There is no holier spot of ground

Than where defeated valor lies,

By mourning beauty crowned.”

These sentiments seem to matter far more than mourning for a dead chocolate factory (though it, too, evinces a lost way of life).

A Union loss at Gettysburg could have created huge morale issues in a country appalled by war. Even with the victories at the two ‘burgs (Gettysburg and Vicksburg, which fell on July 4th), New York was just days later ‘taken by its rats” as Melville called those rioters protesting conscription in New York, in his poem The House-Top.

And what of that battle? Eight generations on, I stood at Little Round Top and then overlooked the field where Pickett’s men advanced and wondered, ‘do we still have a democracy Lincoln would admire? Is it still “of the people by the people for the people?

The phrase from the Gettysburg Address invariably found my children chanting a cartoonish “from the people!” from some cartoon they watch. They also thought adding a set of headphones and an iPod to the statue of Abe Lincoln outside the Gettysburg Visitors museum was funny. Perhaps Abe himself would laugh; he seemed to have a love of children and a good joke. He probably wouldn’t want to be a sacred cow, not to be disturbed. I thought it got too close to mocking something important about those who came before. But maybe I overreact, like Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Redux, who groused (in 1971) that kids of his day act “as if (the country) just grew here instead of people laying down their lives to build it.”

Lincoln turned out to be a political giant; giving him headphones is not the same as standing on his shoulders.

And would those shoulders bow under the realization of our nation today? I felt less certain than I’d like. Our political paralysis and sheer nastiness make me feel wobbly about the strength of our democracy. The insidious role of money and its quiet corrupting effect — 47 percent of Congress were millionaires in 2011 — A lot of them seem to get rich after being elected, a telltale sign of trouble in a democracy.

Yet, despite the odd Impeach Obama sign on a Pennsylvania lawn, and the hoping for a change I heard expressed in a Gettysburg store, we are not at a point where 11 states might secede over the national debt, or immigration or universal health care. I think that would please Lincoln.

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