One hundred fifty-years ago today, around 3:00 in the afternoon, some 13-15 thousand Confederate soldiers left the cover of the trees to begin a 3/4 mile march across open Pennsylvania fields toward awaiting Union defenders on Cemetery Ridge, a commanding prominence at the center of the Union line just south of the town of Gettysburg. After two days of brutal fighting, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hoped that a final assault might break the Union line and force a Yankee withdrawal. Led by Major General George Pickett, the Virginia and North Carolina troops assigned to the undertaking fought valiantly but unsuccessfully, suffering casualties in excess of 50 percent. The failed assault would eventually bear the title “Pickett’s Charge,” and the day would come when both North and South would remember the event as the turning point of the American Civil War.
If the National Park Service is correct, perhaps a quarter-million people will converge on Gettysburg this Fourth of July weekend to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the three-day conflict that killed or maimed more than fifty thousand Americans. If you’re not among them, let me suggest a couple of books that will allow you to do so vicariously.
The first is the Killer Angels, by the late Michael Shaara. The Killer Angels came out in 1974 to critical acclaim (garnering the Pulitzer Prize in 1975), and if the publisher’s figures are correct, it has sold approximately 2.5 million copies since its appearance. Shaara will take you imaginatively into the thick of battle, so military buffs will find it engaging, but what makes the novel really work, I think, is his ability to place the personal stories of the cast of leading characters at the heart of the human drama he is creating. After all, although the novel is undeniably packed with action, we already know how the battle is going to come out. What makes us care about the outcome is Shaara’s ability to make us care about the individuals involved, tragic or inspiring figures like Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, John Buford, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. I have assigned this novel numerous times in college courses over the years, and it’s routinely the case that even students who aren’t the slightest bit interested in military history find it thoroughly engrossing.
For all its virtues, however, Shaara’s historical novel obscures what history actually is, and it will teach you nothing about what it means to think historically. When I started this blog, I shared that it was my heart’s desire to be in conversation with Christians about what it means to think both Christianly and historically about the American past. In my posts I have tended to concentrate primarily on the former, but not because the latter is unimportant. As Christians, if we are ever to think with discernment and wisdom about the American past, it is imperative that we learn good historical thinking skills.
I believe that the first step to thinking historically is understanding the crucial difference between the past and history. As I have shared before, the past is everything that humans have said or thought or done until now. The past is almost infinitely vast and unfathomably complex, and only glimpses or shadows of it survive. History, in contrast, is the effort to piece together the evidence that remains in order to make sense of the past. I like Christian historian John Lukacs’ simple definition of history as the “remembered past.”
The Killer Angels tells a gripping story, some of which is true and much of which is inspiring, but it wholly conceals this fundamental difference between history and the past. The omniscient narrator simply pulls back the veil and shows us exactly what happened. And as we are drawn into the story, we easily forget that almost all of the dialogue and absolutely all of the private ruminations that we find so compelling are inventions of the author. And when it comes to those factual details that seem utterly mundane (who charged when and where and why), one could read the novel a thousand times and never suspect that almost every factual statement Shaara makes is open to dispute. Indeed, when I assign The Killer Angels, I do so not to teach students about the Battle of Gettysburg, but to help them to think more deeply about the differences between history and fiction. I pair the novel with a tall stack of primary accounts left by the leading participants, and I challenge them to see how little of Shaara’s narrative of the battle can actually be proven.
Although no major motion picture will ever be based on it, a book about Gettysburg that does help us to think more historically is Carol Reardon’s Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. The author, a professor of military history at Penn State, is primarily concerned with how the climactic charge on the third day at Gettysburg was remembered both by veterans and by succeeding generations.
Reardon begins her study with a quote from a Union lieutenant who was an eyewitness to Pickett’s charge. In a letter to his brother trying to describe the events of July 3, Lieutenant Frank Haskell concluded that “a full account of the battle as it was will never, can never be made. Who could sketch the changes, the constant shifting of the bloody panorama? It is not possible.” In the end, he predicted, “out of the chaos of trash and falsehood that the newspapers hold, out of the disjointed mass of reports, out of the traditions and tales that come down from the field, some eye that never saw the battle will select, and some pen will write what will be named the history.”
Agreeing with Lt. Haskell, Reardon shows how little is definitively known about the battle. How many troops were actually involved in the attack? We’re not sure. How long was the pre-charge cannonade, when did it begin, and how effective was it? We can’t be certain. What was Pickett’s actual role in the attack? There are too many conflicting accounts to decide.
Reardon goes on to explain that, while there are a wealth of surviving historical sources concerning the battle, all have limitations. Participants’ letters or diaries are of limited usefulness, inasmuch as individual soldiers saw only a microscopic fraction of the battlefield, and in the stress of battle they often remembered a kaleidoscope of disparate sensations more than a coherent narrative of what had occurred. The official reports of commanders were often selective and self-serving. Newspaper accounts came from reporters who typically had little personal military experience or knowledge and were faced with the daunting task of trying to bring some sort of coherence to the myriad individual, often conflicting perspectives garnered from interviews.
One of the book’s most striking features is Reardon’s demonstration that the memory of Pickett’s Charge continued to be a battleground for at least another two generations. Part of this was a struggle over significance. Immediately after the battle’s conclusion, Pickett’s Charge wasn’t even known as Pickett‘s charge yet. (Pickett was rarely even mentioned in the first newspaper accounts.) None of the participants knew what the battle meant in the big picture except that the Confederate invasion of the North had been blunted. Most significantly, few soldiers at the time thought that the battle constituted a major turning point in the war. Reardon writes that the battle’s purported effects on the “war’s decision, America’s destiny, the doom of the Confederacy–all of this was read afterward in to the story.”
Part of the struggle was over credit and blame. For the rest of the century, soldiers from North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi wanted to know why only Pickett’s Virginians were remembered in the story’s retelling. Soldiers on both sides wanted to know why the fighting on the final day of the battle seemed to be all that the public remembered. Union soldiers wanted to know why so much attention was being lavished on traitorous Confederates. Whatever had actually happened on Cemetery Ridge, the larger meaning for America was far from certain.
In a way that The Killer Angels does not, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory reminds us of the messiness of the past and the severe limitations on our ability to know it. As Christians, we recognize in this not only a reflection of our own finiteness–we are vastly overmatched by the scope and complexity of the past–but also of our fallenness, as we strive to remember the past in self-serving, self-justifying ways.