Over the span of three summer days in 1863, 46,286 Americans were killed, wounded, went missing or were captured by enemy forces in the largest battle ever fought in North America. Or 51,112. Or 36, 450.
The climactic event of the battle was a heroic, failed charge led by a single general focusing on a small cluster of trees along a low hill appropriately called Cemetery Ridge. Or this charge was the work of three generals, one of whom predicted it would fail.
Even the very popular, arguably hallowed, name of this attack can be misleading or confusing. Rather than a violent, quick attack against a foe, the "charge" in question was more like an ordered march across close to a mile of open field.
If you've never been to Gettysburg, you should make a point to go at least once in your life. Yes, it's out of the way unless you happen to be vacationing near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Other than the battlefield there's not a whole lot to do there. But it is the site of possibly the most important battle in the history of this country.
Before you go though, be sure to read Thomas Desjardin's interesting book on the battle, "These Honored Dead."
I'm not a Civil War buff. I have a degree in history and took a class on the Civil War in college but haven't read a book even touching the subject in at least three years. And the only reason I picked up Desjardin's book in the first place was because my dad gave it to me years ago and I'm trying to clear shelf space on my bookshelves.
That said, the book is fascinating not for what it specifically discusses regarding the Battle of Gettysburg but for the implications these arguments have on just about any historical event, especially military events, that has ever occurred.
For example, Desjardin makes it clear that much of what we know today about the battle was the product of one man named John Badger Bachelder, a landscape painter from New Hampshire who was not present at the battle. And much of what Bachelder has stated as fact comes from conflicting accounts offered by veterans decades after the battle, facts Bachelder either accepted or discarded in large part to affirm what he believed happened.
Bachelder desperately wanted an American Waterloo to commemorate on canvas, and decided that Gettysburg was this battle. He needed a climax to the battle, and decided the apex of this battle, the fabled "high water mark of the Confederacy," occurred at a small copse of trees along Cemetery Ridge.
However at the time of the battle this stand of trees was only about ten feet tall and could not be seen from certain points of the field. How could an entire army focus its all-or-nothing assault on something that was hard to see on a clear day, much less a day filled with gunpowder smoke?
History is written by humans who carry inherent prejudices with them. What really happens today might not necessarily be what is reported as a fact in the future, either through a combination of legitimate uncertainty or conscious efforts to mold history to one's beliefs. And what is reported 100 years in the future as having actually happened doesn't make it necessarily so.
Understanding how history is written is almost more important than understanding the history itself.
And if you're going to visit Gettysburg, take the time to make the drive to Sharpsburg, Maryland to tour Antietam. It's worth the 55 mile trip.
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