Gettysburg – Three days that changed the USA
On the battlefield of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, 150 years ago, the American Civil War was decided. Even today, the battles are re-enacted annually by clubs.
From July 1 to 3, 1863, the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War raged at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. For years, Americans had been gathering on the battlefield to reenact the slaughter.
“Stack the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo/ Shovel them under the ground and let me do it/ I am the grass; I cover all of them/ And stack them high at Gettysburg/ And stack them high at Ypres and Verdun/ Shovel them under the ground and let me do it/ Two years, ten years later the people ask the conductor: / What is this called?/ Where are we now?/ I am the grass.”
“Grass” is a beautiful poem by Carl Sandburg, the great left-wing poet and Lincoln biographer. But it’s not true. First of all, no train stops in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania today. The town is just too small – only freight trains rattle through. So no passenger can ask the metaphysical question: “What is this called? Where are we now?” Second, there’s no need to ask that question. Nothing is forgotten in this Gettysburg; nothing and nobody. No grass grows over history here. Instead, the city has turned the memory of the Civil War into a lucrative business.
For 45 dollars, one can take a bus to the former battlefield; afterwards, the inclined tourist can have a look at the cannons and uniforms from the civil war in the museum. In the evening at dusk “Ghost Walks” are offered: romantic walks where you are guaranteed to meet real ghosts. There is the house, in whose cellar there is often an eerie rumble, there is the bridge, on which a white-robed, plaintive figure has been sighted.
Yes, this Gettysburg is haunted. It’s no wonder. Losses on both sides were in the neighborhood of 50,000 men in three days. In comparison, 58,209 Americans were killed in Vietnam.
When you are in Gettysburg, you immediately understand why the rebel army from the south and the Union army clashed here of all places. A glance at the map is enough: There are ten roads leading in from the surrounding area. So you can quickly get troops here. The terrain is also favorable: Pennsylvania looks essentially like Bavaria – gentle humps, forests, fields. In the 19th century, there was no air force yet, and it was still a matter of conquering and maintaining strategic heights.
Robert E. Lee considered himself invincible
When the army of Southern General Robert E. Lee stepped out of the undergrowth in the fields outside Gettysburg at dawn on July 1, 1863, they believed it would be very easy to take this city. She believed that Gettysburg was essentially defenseless. But a vanguard of the Northern Army had chosen Gettysburg as their base.
And so nothing was easy. A long and bloody battle had begun. Robert E. Lee – a gentleman with a white beard and kind eyes – was then considered quite invincible. His soldiers in their grey uniforms had defeated the Blue Coats of the North four times in a row in a row.
On the evening of the first day in Gettysburg, things did not look good for the Northerners. They were badly decimated, their battle line had collapsed, so that their formation – seen from the air – would have looked like a fishhook. But at least the Union Army had managed to maintain its position on the ridges off Gettysburg. The southerners camped in the fields below.
The man who explained the battlefields to us history tourists in the bus was called Wally. He had a moustache, was dressed in the uniform of a parking attendant and was very friendly, and he carried a belly of pain in front of him, in which there was a lot of learned knowledge. The real technical innovation of this war, Wally said, was the cannon with a rifled barrel, which no longer fired clumsy bullets, but projectiles: cylindrical bullets with sharp points that rotated around themselves. This increased the accuracy enormously – you could suddenly shoot very far. And the projectiles were filled with explosives so that they burst like bombs under the enemy soldiers.
The dead fraternally side by side
Before we reached the battlefields, our bus drove for miles through cemeteries. Every state has its own: New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania. And the Southern states: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi. Now that the battle is over, the dead sleep together as brothers.
The passengers on our history bus were the usual colorful American mix – young, old, descendants of the black slaves of yesteryear and descendants of the white slave owners. All very casually dressed, it was already quite hot. A teacher in short trousers was also there. She had promised her school class that she would bring pictures of the battlefield. She put a cute cloth bunny on a cannon barrel, posed with her mini camera and pulled the trigger.
The first day in Gettysburg ended with a near victory for the Southern states; July 2 ended with a draw after much bloody back and forth. And on the third day, Robert E. Lee wanted to know for sure. He had his army storm up a hill, pretty much in the middle of the Northern Formation, to cut the enemy army in two – with the aim of then massacring or forcing each part to surrender separately.
It might have worked. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the Southern cannons started firing to tear apart the Northerners at the top of their ridge. But they fired too far, most of their shells burst harmlessly behind the hill. An hour later, the Southerners began marching against the enemy positions. 12,500 men in open field, neatly lined up, nearly a mile wide.
I saw them coming up from the ridge, that is, from the position of the northerners, from below: Drummers, a military band, regimental flags, blood-stained boys in gray. Indistinct shadows. Ghosts in a green field. And suddenly a very unchristian thought flashed through my skull. I thought: It must have been murderous fun to fire into these people with cannons and muzzle-loaders. Always hit it hard! “It’s good that the war is so gruesome and bloody,” Robert E. Lee once said, “because otherwise we would love it far too much.”
States became one nation…
If too many people had fallen, the next ones moved up, and the southerners closed their line of battle again. The last few meters they took in a fast run. A few hundred men actually broke through. But the Yankees, in a scuffle, quickly finished them off. It was a hot day, 31 degrees Celsius. At half past eight in the evening, the only civilian casualty of the Battle of Gettysburg, a certain Ginnie Wade, died. A stray bullet hit her in her kitchen while she was kneading the bread dough. No one knows whether it was a Northern or Southern bullet.
The next day, it started raining. The rain fell on this and that dead person. “Shovel her under the ground”? No way: The graves were too shallow and they opened quickly. Thousands of horse corpses lay in the mud on the battlefield. Coincidentally, it was the American National Day, July 4th, 1863, and Robert E. Lee’s army left defeated and humiliated. It never recovered from that blow. The Civil War lasted for another year and a half afterwards – but the fate of the Confederates was actually sealed on that day.
As is well known, the war produced two results. The first was political: Abraham Lincoln cunningly crammed his Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution through Congress, which abolished slavery in the United States. (Steven Spielberg made a great feature film about it.)
The second result was more subtle, it happened in the sphere of grammar. Before the Civil War, people said, “The United States ARE”. But after that it was called: “The United States IS”. This singular is wrong according to the rules of school grammar, but historically correct; because a new era of world history started from Gettysburg. Without the victory of the North, the United States would have disintegrated and degenerated; in any case, it would not have risen to become a superpower.