Today is the 151st anniversary of day 2 of the three-day battle of Gettysburg. I finished reading The Killer Angels this morning, Michael Shaara’s brilliant retelling of that critical conflict. It is sobering, and sad, almost tragically sad if you are a Virginian, which I am.
Adding to the complexity of my emotions on the subject is the recent–entirely justified–wave of anti-Confederate sentiment in the US. While I was raised to believe that the War of Northern Aggression was a states’ rights conflict (and it was), I have come to understand through a good deal of research that Shaara is right when he has Tom Chamberlain, Colonel Joshuway Chamberlain’s brother, say:
It would never have come to war if it weren’t for slavery, would it?
I believe it would not. And slavery cannot be countenanced. It was a blight and a stain on this country that required–and may yet require–blood to expunge.
I am a man who tries hard to find the reasons for the conduct of his opponents, and to respect them even if I cannot agree with them. I respect Robert Lee, and James Longstreet, and Stonewall Jackson. I cannot agree with them. What I would have done in their place, I do not know, though I suspect I’d have been much as they were. Likewise had I been Reynolds or Hancock or Chamberlain, I’d have been as committed in the other way (though not nearly as brilliantly as they were).
On the subject of Lee, though, Shaara paints a picture that is very disturbingly familiar to me. The Union occupied the high ground at Gettysburg–don’t get me started on how–and Longstreet especially wished to avoid any conflict that would require the Confederacy to fight entrenched artillery up a steep grade. His idea was for them to refuse to fight altogether, to move south and head for Washington, cutting off supply and communications, and forcing the Union to fight on ground of the Confederacy’s choosing. Had they done this, we would be having a quite different conversation right now.
But Lee couldn’t do it. His pride and the pride of the army–a key, perhaps THE key component of their successes to that point–would not allow him to make the only sane choice, which was to withdraw, and fight another day. It was by far the better option militarily, but perhaps it couldn’t have been done and keep the army intact. I don’t know. No one does. It didn’t happen, and the second day of Gettysburg made Chamberlain famous, and the third day Pickett, for similar reasons (though far different results).
I’m in crisis at the moment. I have three careers right now, mortgages, teaching, and writing. I make money at all three. I’d like to continue, but I don’t quite know how. The way forward was once quite clear, but it has fogged, and I don’t know the ground any more. I am Lee, staring up at the Union artillery, looking at the formation, and I can’t see any other way to go than the way I’m being forced to go. I don’t want to go this way. I rejected this way once, and it was wonderful, and liberating, and successful. But now I mistrust myself, my confidence is small, and my mind cannot see a way to go where my heart insists. Jeb Stuart, once such an advantage, has left me without communication, without intelligence of the ground or the enemy. I am blind. I may be stumbling into disaster, and have no way to know it.
I apologize that the above is very vague. It is impossible for me to be less so; there are other people involved and other delicacies of position that will not allow me to publicly state the details of the whole affair. I can only say that I feel so much like Lee, with Longstreet at his elbow, telling him “we can’t go that way. We must not go that way. There is another way that will work. Trust me,” and Lee still staring up that hill, determined to take it. I am terrified that there is Big Round Top, just off the southern end of the Union line, and if I were just to see it, just to understand in a flash that that way will work, that way is the victory, then the assault need not happen and the flower of my army need not be uselessly cut down.
Or, maybe it isn’t there. Maybe there is no such hill. I’m equally terrified of that, because then I will have refused the only battle that could save me.
Over the next week, I’ll have to commit to fighting this battle, one way or the other. I pray so very hard that I will not in the end say, as Lee did, “It was all my fault. But I do not see how I could have done other than what I did.”
P.S. The truth is that life is not a narrative. It need not match up to what has gone before. It need not follow a script. However romantic it may seem to me to be a character in a great sweeping drama, the fact is that I am a little man in a little place whose actions are of little importance. Nothing that happens in my life today will be anything like as permanent and catastrophic as Pickett charging up the hill. I do know that. Still, stories are powerful, and in my mind nearly omnipotent. I do still believe that mine will have a happy ending.