At Gettysburg

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In the aftermath of last September’s attacks, there was, for the first time in my memory, a good deal of talk about the War of 1812. This most underrated (in terms of both significance and intrinsic interest) of our national conflicts saw a number of humiliating military defeats and the destruction of a good part of the capital, and now we were being reminded that this was the last time such things had taken place on American soil.

This is both true and not true. Certainly it was the last time a foreign power made a successful foray into the United States, but we should remember that the destruction of the Civil War, though brought about by our own hand, was immeasurably greater. In last December’s issue, James McPherson pointed out that 2 percent of the population died in the conflict; if that happened to us today, it would mean five and half million dead Americans.

How does a nation absorb such losses and continue to function?

George R. Stewart ends his fine 1959 book Pickett’s Charge (which bears the curiously post-1959-sounding subtitle “A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863") decades after the awful effort it chronicles, but in the same place. During a reunion held when the bitterness had faded sufficiently for old Yankees and old Rebels alike to take part, a keg of beer was set up near the low stone wall beneath the clump of trees where the Southern brigades had broken against Union musketry and canister. The heat lay on the sunstruck meadows as heavily as it had that other summer day, and the Confederate veterans drank down the cold beer gratefully. If that keg had been there in —63, they told their sometime enemies, you’d never have got us away from that wall.

It’s a charming story, and it wouldn’t quite work for any other field. Gettysburg is the battle that exerts the strongest pull on our imaginings of the war.

One day several months ago, when the mail brought in its usual bounty of review copies of new books, the first one I opened was Gettysburg—The First Day by Harry W. Pfanz; the next was Jeffry D. Wert’s Gettysburg: Day Three . Such books will keep coming, for the battle is the distillation of the whole war into a three-day Iliad powerful enough to charge the names of the most humdrum agrarian fixtures—a wheat field, a peach orchard—with a terse, understated poetry that will last as long as the Republic does.

I’ve been thinking about Gettysburg not only because the country is again at war but because American Heritage has just added to all those books. I believe it is a first-rate addition. The American Heritage History of the Battle of Gettysburg is handsomely illustrated but, more important, it is written with bite and clarity by Craig L. Symonds, who tells the story with such immediacy that we feel suspense about the outcome.

It is not only the obvious drama and significance of the engagement that keeps it so much fresher in our minds than is, say, the far larger and more recent battle for the Argonne. That fight is over; and in some ways, Gettysburg isn’t. The beguiling image of the old foes enjoying their beer together obscures the moral bargain that made the rapprochement possible: You’ll say you’re glad that despite it all you’re still in the Union, and we’ll say you waged a gallant struggle for “a way of life.” Who gets left out of this deal?

Nevertheless, given the enormity of what had preceded it, the pact was almost surely an emotional necessity if the nation was to mend itself. What had been left unsolved would be fought out a century later in battles less bloody but no less significant than those of the Civil War, and of course the struggle is with us still.

But that shouldn’t darken the scene of the old men with their lager. Those convivial septuagenarians suggest, as George R. Stewart says at the very end of his book, that “sometimes, the hatreds and the horrors of the world, like its glories, pass away.” At Gettysburg today, every American holds the high ground.