History is the interplay of large, tectonic forces – demographic, social, cultural, economic, political – with discrete human actors. As an academic discipline, history has come to better appreciate those tectonic forces, and how they shape events and the “great man” approach to history has faded from the landscape. This change is welcome to be sure not least because it is true.
Take the present moment. For all the back-and-forth between President Obama and congressional Republicans, and between Establishment Republicans and the Tea Party leaders like Sen. Ted Cruz, the most important fact about politics today is demographic: The number of minority voters is increasing exponentially and they tend to only vote in full strength during a presidential election. This seems to guarantee continued Democratic control of the White House but continued Republican dominance of off-year elections. A variety of factors have made these new minority voters allergic to the GOP, the most obvious factor being that in the past decades, the GOP has become more white, more southern, and more Christian, which is in turn the result of several interlocking factors, all the while, the nation was growing less white, less southern, and less Christian.
Nonetheless, there are moments when the hinge of fate is handed to a few discrete souls and their decisions and behavior can prove decisive over and above whatever socio-cultural shifts are occurring. 151 years ago today, one of those moments occurred in a wooded area just south of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
If you have never had the chance to walk the battlefield at Gettysburg, I encourage you to do so. As much as I love learning by reading, battles are very difficult to understand without a survey of the landscape. I have never walked the field of Blenheim or Waterloo and know that, until I do, exactly how and why things unfolded as they did will remain opaque to me. With the onset of flight and computers and all the modern paraphernalia of war, the role of that most elemental tectonic force, geography, was an essential component of every battle and the geography of Gettysburg is integral to understanding the events that transpired there.
When you climb the small, rugged hill known as Little Round Top, you immediately grasp the same thing that was grasped by a Union scout on July 2, 1863: Whoever controls that hill, and hauls some cannon up it, can dominate the Union lines along Cemetery Ridge below. That day, of course, the Union lines were no longer immediately below: General Daniel Sickles had moved his troops forward from Cemetery Ridge to a peach orchard on higher ground, leaving his troops unconnected to the main Union lines on the ridge. This move, combined with the failure to secure Little Round Top, could have quickly spelt disaster for the Union armies.
The Confederate troops under the command of General James Longstreet took their time in mounting their attack on the Union left flank, now anchored by Little Round Top. Longstreet’s role at Gettysburg will long be questioned: He did not want to fight on the terrain he rightly believed favored the Union armies but General Robert E. Lee overruled him, famously saying, “The enemy is there and I am going to attack him there.” At 4 p.m. that afternoon, the Confederate troops marched forward. They almost broke through the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, with only the bravery of the 1st Minnesota division finally plugging the holes in the defensive perimeter. If you walk to the monument to the 1st Minnesota, you will ascertain the human cost of their effort. Carved into the stone is the grim information that of the 262 men that constituted the division, 215 were casualties. Those men would not have been surprised: They rushed in to face forces five times their number. And, by this the third year of the war, everyone knew that one of those tectonic shifts had cast its darkest cloud over the fighting: The technology of war had outstripped the technology of medicine. The lucky ones were those shot and killed instantly compared to those who were wounded and sent to see the surgeon.
More Americans, thanks to popular movies and books, are familiar with the heroics of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine division that he led. They held the very end of the Union line, on the south side of Little Round Top. If the Confederates had turned this flank, they would have captured Little Round Top and won the battle. It is a short walk in the woods from the stone observatory tower on Little Round Top to the small monument to the 20th Maine. It is quiet there now and if you go in the early spring or late autumn, when the crowds are few, the only sound you will hear is the sound of trigs and branches breaking beneath your feet. It is hard to imagine this woodland quietude a scene of death and destruction, but so it was. And, as you realize how close they were to falling back and giving control of this key hill to the Alabama brigades that were assaulting them, you realize that the whole battle of Gettysburg was a close run thing.
The hinge of fate. If the Union armies had lost that day, a parade of horribles, to use a current phrase, might have followed: Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could have easily taken Harrisburg and threatened Philadelphia, the United Kingdom might have recognized the independence of the Confederacy, opening the way to a supply of arms and money, Lincoln’s leadership would have been even more severely questioned than it was, McClellan might have taken the presidency the following year and sought peace with the Confederates. No one will know.
When you walk through the field at Gettysburg, you will encounter other monuments, none with the extreme percentage of casualties registered among the 1st Minnesota, but grim enough. 50,000 Americans were killed, wounded or missing in three days of fighting, almost equally divided among North and South. Most of their names are long since forgotten, but they had lives, some had wives and children back home. They did what they were asked to do, and what they were asked to do was about as scary and dangerous as a thing can be, but they did their duty. You need not glorify war to acknowledge their sacrifice.
When I bring visiting friends to Gettysburg, especially children, I explain that there is no more sacred soil in America than this. Here was where the tide turned: Before Gettysburg, the South won virtually every battle and after Gettysburg, they met mostly with defeat. Here, Lincoln’s determination to fight to preserve the Union was vindicated on the field by the god of battles. Here, Americans in unprecedented numbers gave their lives to defend the proposition, the defense of which Lincoln would, on this same field, a few months hence, articulate as the central war aim: The proposition that all men are created equal. Again, there is no need to glorify war, still less to like it, to recognize that at that moment in our nation’s history, the fate of millions of enslaved peoples as well as the fate of the Union hung in the balance and the scales were tipped not merely by some unseen, impersonal forces, but by the men of the 1st Minnesota and the 20th Maine and their compatriots in arms.