To hear the name Gettysburg is, for almost any American, to immediately remember famous men. First, one thinks of the legendary generals on both sides of the enormous Civil War, or perhaps of Abraham Lincoln, delivering the brief but masterful Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a cemetery to honor the battle’s fallen less than five months later. And during my own visit to the battlefield in July for the sesquicentennial of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, I was drawn to the prominent memorials of the famous generals who fought there—Robert E. Lee, George Meade, John F. Reynolds and Abner Doubleday.
But I was fascinated less by the famous men or the tales of valor than by the sheer mass of humanity that fought and died on those fields 150 years ago. For all else that Gettysburg was, it was also one of the first battles of indiscriminate modern warfare.
This experience was in large part facilitated by the presence in Gettysburg that weekend of vast numbers of Civil War re-enactors playing the roles of soldiers, nurses, generals and more. The anniversary was marked by a mammoth re-enactments of the battle on nearby farms, and the area was inundated by visitors in the uniforms of Union and Confederate troops. In addition to the drama of the re-enacted battles—cannon, cavalry, gunpowder, the distinctive scent of thousands of men in wool uniforms who had not showered in days—one also saw a town of 7,500 (only 5,000 more than at the time of the battle) completely overrun by almost 100,000 people—more than 15,000 of them in full period costume.
On an impossibly hot day before the re-enactment, I spent several hours talking to re-enactors who had momentarily turned into tourists themselves, exploring Gettysburg and visiting the actual battlefield (and, to my annoyance, often remaining in character—“Yankee, might thee offer me some of yonder water bottle?”). One group, dressed in impeccable detail as Confederate riflemen, had flown over from Germany, one of 16 foreign nations that sent participants to the re-enactment. Perhaps, it occurred to me, Germany needs some more time before military nostalgia is acceptable at home.
The vast majority, however, were from the United States, and they provided insight into another interesting feature of the original battle; other than their uniforms, they all looked more or less the same. Like the armies they were imitating, they were almost all white men of a certain age and appearance.
Historians of any war can inevitably point to cultural artifacts that seek to establish the enemy as wholly Other, the hated, inscrutable, soulless, not-like-us target that has no emotion or yearning other than our destruction, and so must be annihilated. From biblical songs calling for the smashing of Babylonian babies against rocks to Allied propaganda in World War I that German soldiers were melting down captured Canadians to make glue, the impulse is always to deny the enemy any similarity to one’s own humanity—all the easier to kill them.
But what do you do when the enemy looks just like you? When he speaks your language, prays the same terrified words to the same God, eats your food, sings your songs? At a distance it might make little difference, but at places like Little Roundtop and in the waning moments of Pickett’s Charge, the soldiers at Gettysburg found themselves fighting face to familiar face.
The savagery of the fighting is memorialized in some of the place names at Gettysburg: The Slaughter Pen; Bloody Run, where creeks of human blood washed around the feet of fighting men; The Valley of Death. And, of course, there is Pickett’s Charge, the valiant but doomed frontal assault of the Confederate Army into Union gunfire on the third day, “for hell or glory,” that left 10,000 men dead or wounded in less than an hour. Altogether, out of a Confederate Army of 70,000 and a Union force of 94,000, more than 46,000 were killed or wounded over the course of three days.
To be wounded at Gettysburg was itself in many cases a death sentence. With little in the way of modern medicine (no penicillin or morphine, only crude surgical instruments and inattention to sanitation) and no way to evacuate the injured, soldiers who fell on the battlefield often bled to death or suffered a slow and agonizing death from infection. Weather conditions made it worse. The scorching heat was followed by a heavy rain the day after the battle, and many of the wounded simply lay helpless in the sucking mud. Even when succor could be offered, it often meant little more than a tourniquet to slow bleeding or a bonesaw to cut through shattered or infected limbs.
With such huge numbers of casualties, even disposing of corpses was a massive task that had to be done hastily as the bodies began to rot. News reports said that by the second day after the battle’s conclusion, the stench of the battlefield could be smelled five miles away. As a result, many corpses were simply dumped into hollows or buried alongside roads, especially the bodies of the Confederate dead. Soldiers tasked with burying the dead often worked for a day and then begged off, overwhelmed by the task and the carnage. There was no time to identify individuals, and no dog tags. At Gettysburg National Cemetery, where more than 3,500 Union soldiers are buried, far more haunting than the named graves are the rows and rows of tombstones with merely a number.
At a distance of 150 years, these images and stories are haunting; they could only have been overwhelming for both sides in the days and weeks following the battle. I suspect that the trench warfare of World War I and the enormous casualties of World War II have made us rather more able to process mentally the wholesale slaughter that takes place in modern war, but in Civil War America there would have been no such precedents until Gettysburg and similar, even bloodier battles were reported in the newspapers.
In that vein, it is worth noting that the New York City draft riots, which necessitated a military occupation of large sections of Manhattan, occurred precisely 10 days after Gettysburg, when the news of the battle and estimates of casualties were already in the papers. For more than a few recent arrivals from Ireland present for the drawing of draft numbers, those accounts of the carnage surely put into stark terms what they (few could afford the $300 commutation fee for a substitute) could expect to see in the weeks and months ahead—a high likelihood of dying in someone else’s Civil War.
What is perhaps most striking about Gettysburg today is that the battle is not necessarily commemorated as a triumph of one side over the other. The most dramatic statue on the battlefield is a monument to Robert E. Lee, and the Confederate soldiers are largely remembered not as traitors but as brave men willing to charge into fusillades of lead and iron for honor and duty. Perhaps it is easier to forgive and forget after a century and a half (especially if there are tourist dollars to be won); then again, it is also easy to forget that humanity rarely does. How many other battlefields around the world remain today a source of rage and hatred of the Other, of occasions to sing a song of triumph for victory or of wrath at defeat and humiliation? I myself remember the completely irrational anger that welled up inside me when I visited Pearl Harbor and found it overrun with Japanese tourists smiling and taking pictures. And how many countries have been torn apart in the last century by remembrances of past civil wars?
But at Gettysburg there are Union and Confederate flags side by side everywhere; there are as many monuments to the dead of the Southern states as their Northern cousins. The narratives of the battlefield guides and the language used in the museums and on the tombstones are often surprisingly neutral and equally respectful of the dead of both sides. How did such a brutal slaughter come to be remembered in just a few short years as a monument to both? Was this perhaps the only way the nation could survive after the Northern victory? There is something singular about the lack of rancor.
Of course, rancor can be a relative thing to judge. It sometimes hides beneath the surface. Many of the emotional wounds of the Civil War remain our wounds today, and we have found many Others, both foreign and domestic, to demonize. On the busiest day of that Fourth of July weekend in Gettysburg, one spot of sidewalk in Lincoln Square was occupied by a group of full-voiced enthusiasts of revolt against “King Obama” (and against restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which created safeguards to regulate banks). They had a booth in which to store their pamphlets and other wares and on which to hang a poster of President Barack Obama. One did not have to look too closely to see what they had done to it.
There, 50 feet from the building where Abraham Lincoln put the finishing touches on the Gettysburg Address, the first black president of our more perfect union was depicted with a Hitler mustache.