Politics & Policy

America’s Battlefield

“Perhaps no word in the American language has greater historical resonance than Gettysburg.”

That’s a great sentence, appearing on the opening page of James M. McPherson’s new book Hallowed Ground. It says so much: American language, not English language. And the point of the sentence is deeply true. If a picture conveys a thousand words, then “Gettysburg” conveys a thousand pictures — of two armies stumbling into each other at a site neither one chose; of Joshua Chamberlain holding the left flank on Little Round Top; of the golden-haired George Custer yelling, “Come on, you Wolverines!”; of Pickett’s fateful charge; of Blue and Grey clashing in the most momentous battle in our national history.

This Tuesday marks the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which raged for three days in 1863. Unless you like crowds, the battlefield is probably a place to avoid on July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd of any year. But it’s also a place that every American should visit at least once.

It helps to prepare for Gettysburg. Some 1,400 monuments and markers dot the landscape today. It’s a big place and a big story to take in — impossible to do in just a few hours. Reading McPherson’s Hallowed Ground beforehand is a superb way to get ready.

McPherson narrates the book as if he’s leading readers on a tour of the battlefield. This, in fact, is his charge — Hallowed Ground being one in a series of walking-tour books called Crown Journeys. (Another in the series is Washington Schlepped Here, by Christopher Buckley, son of WFB.) Indeed, Hallowed Ground has lines like this one, on page 52: “We will gather between the monument to the 154th New York and the mural on the side of a warehouse portraying the action at this site.”

McPherson is an ideal author for this tour. He is not only our finest Civil War historian (his Battle Cry of Freedom belongs in the library of every Civil War buff), but he also has led many groups of family, friends, and students around the battlefield. Last week, I bumped into an editor who worked on this book — except that “worked” isn’t really the right word for it. He marveled at how little editing McPherson needed. Perhaps McPherson didn’t “write” this book so much as transcribe it. He’s been giving this talk for years.

As with every battle, plenty of debates swirl around Gettysburg. McPherson isn’t afraid to wade into a few here. He’s sympathetic to Confederate General James Longstreet (who is sometimes condemned for taking his time to carry out orders) and Union General George Meade (who is occasionally blamed for not making more of his victory). McPherson is also gently critical of Robert E. Lee (for ordering Pickett’s disastrous charge — against the advice of Longstreet) and Abraham Lincoln (for believing Meade was certain to smash Lee’s army with a counterattack on a never-fought fourth day).

Yet Hallowed Ground is not really an analysis of what happened. It’s a tour of today’s battlefield, told in a way that allows the story of the fight to unfold as McPherson rambles around with his readers. The book is full of the colorful anecdotes and odd facts that mark the difference between a fascinating tour and a dull one. Here’s a sampling of what McPherson offers on 141 breezy pages:

“The most prominent Union cavalry commander [Major General John Reynolds] is memorialized in bronze on foot. Go figure.”

In March 1997, a park ranger noticed bones protruding from an eroded rail bed — the remains of a soldier who died on the first day of fighting. “No clothing or anything else that might have identified him as Union or Confederate could be found,” writes McPherson. Four months later, the soldier was buried in the national cemetery with full military honors. Two Civil War widows — the final two — attended. As teenagers in the 1920s, they had married old veterans. One of the ladies was white, from Alabama; the other was black, from Colorado.

On Cemetery Hill, a Union strongpoint, a cemetery sign read: “All persons found using firearms on these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law.”

Major General Daniel E. Sickles lost a leg to a cannonball on the second day. “His amputated leg was preserved in formaldehyde at a medical laboratory in Washington, where in later years Sickles would take visitors to see it. We can visit his shinbone today at the Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.” (True! Here’s the link.)

Also on the second day, Father William Corby mounted a boulder just before the famous “Irish Brigade” went into action. “The Catholic Church refuses Christian burial to the soldier who turns his back upon the foe of deserts his flag,” said the chaplain. McPherson continues: “He then pronounced the Latin words of absolution for those who would not come back. Men from other regiments standing nearby also bowed their heads and accepted absolution even though they were Protestants; after all, it couldn’t hurt.”

Culp’s and East Cemetery Hills were the most-visited parts of the battlefield in the 1870s and 1880s. Today they are the least visited, because they’re listed as “optional” on the Park Service’s self-guided auto tour and because most of the action described in Michael Shaara’s popular novel The Killer Angels took place elsewhere.

“Owing to some freak acoustic condition of the atmosphere, several people in the Pittsburgh area, 150 miles to the west, heard this artillery barrage [on the third day], while residents of Chambersburg, only twenty-five miles away, heard little or nothing.”

A very nice description of Pickett’s charge: “Forward they went into a chaos of exploding shells that dropped men at almost every step. On they marched, closing ranks and keeping alignment almost as if they were on the parade ground. It was an awesome spectacle that participants on both sides remembered until the ends of their lives — which for many would come within the next half hour.”

One company of a North Carolina regiment “included four sets of twins, every one of whom was killed or wounded in the battle — a phenomenon unmatched by any other unit in the entire war.”

I won’t conclude with any wise words; I’ll simply share another anecdote, which also happens to be the author’s last (before an epilogue). McPherson observes that rain started to fall after the battle: “Heavy rain fell after several Civil War battles. A widespread theory at the time held that the thunder of artillery somehow caused clouds to let loose their own thunder and moisture. I am unable to say whether this theory holds water.”

Okay, okay, here are some wise words: If want a great book about Gettysburg, read Hallowed Ground.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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