Gettysburg, Memory and Memorial Day

Circleville Herald, May 22, 2009


So often war is remembered, even on Memorial Day, as  a romantic and heroic adventure. The film “Gettysburg”, for example, relies heavily on Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s own memoirs of his service with the 20th Maine Regiment  defending Little Round Top July 2, 1863. Chamberlain’s account is a heroic tale of a valiant charge, with himself at the center.


Other surviving first-hand accounts of the horrendous fight on Little Round Top speak of the terror of the men running out of ammunition, about to be overrun. Certain they were going to die anyway, the  20th Maine bayonet charge downhill into the oncoming Alabama Confederates was the response of a trapped and caged animal. Many accounts of the 20th Maine charge note that many of the men were already out in front of their lines, trying to bring in wounded comrades or get ammunition from fallen Confederates. When Colonel  Oates ‘ 15th  Alabama came yet again up the slope, many 20th Maine men,  driven to the limits of terror, charged  spontaneously forward out of desperation. Colonel Chamberlain’s order of  “Bayonets! Forward!” may well have been given somewhat after the fact. 


Chamberlain deserves our admiration and respect, yet a careful chronological examination of his writings over the decades after Little Round Top shows how the process of selective memory caused him , over time, to view his own, and his men’s   actions  through a heroic martial filter, rather than the grim reality of Civil War combat. Chamberlains’ accounts of Little Round Top helped elect him governor of Maine for four terms. The men of the 20th Maine, as all men in combat, fought in terror to stay alive. The trouble with remembering war heroically is that we shall  certainly have many more of them.


Most of the monuments on the Gettysburg Battlefield, placed 25 years or so after the battle reflect this tendency to selectively remember war as romantic heroism. The grounds are full of monuments of officers on horseback issuing orders, cannons, visages of Union troops with upraised fists confronting the oncoming Confederates (143rd Pennsylvania Infantry).


For the truth of combat at Gettysburg, as bad as any in World War l or on D-Day, visit the Wheatfield at dawn, when the mist hugs the killing field, when the ghosts of the dead are still about, before they are chased away by bumper to bumper tour buses. The Irish Brigade, made up of five all-Irish regiments, the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York, 28th Massachusetts and Pennsylvania 116th infantries, took 50% casualties in the Wheatfield. Many were signed up as they got off the boat from Ireland. The least valued in our society are often on the front lines. During the Civil War, affluent men could pay their way out of the draft. During Vietnam the privileged could hole up safely in college. The enlisted medics I served with in the 1980’s were often not of privileged backgrounds, this was an economic draft, there  were limited good civilian opportunities for these young reservists. The Irish Brigade was slaughtered in front of entrenched Confederates at Fredericksburg December 1862, what was left of them was offered up as sacrifice in the Wheatfield , a half-mile in front of Little Round Top.


The Irish Brigade monument is a somber Celtic cross, An Irish wolfhound, representing faith and devotion, sleeps at the foot of the cross. The 28th Massachusetts monument details it’s 50% casualties and reads “To our dead comrades”. The 116th Pennsylvania  monument features a slain young soldier, grasping in death a broken musket he was using as a club in hand to hand combat. There are no brave officers, upraised fists, waving flags here. “Death is the only victor reflected in the monument. For the handful of survivors of the 116th Pennsylvania, reflecting back on the comrades left behind… death had reaped a tremendous harvest from their ranks.” ( “Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments”)


 July 1st, 1863, the 90th Pennsylvania Infantry, in the kill or be killed of combat, annihilated 588 men of the 26th North Carolina, the greatest numeric loss of any Confederate unit at Gettysburg. Their monument is a quiet oak tree, shattered by artillery, but with signs of  peacetime life returning. An ivy vine grows up the side, a bird’s nest with baby birds being fed by their mother is clearly seen. At the dedication speeches in 1888, survivor after survivor of the 90th Pennsylvania noted they dedicated this tree to life, from themselves  who had both brought and suffered so much death and destruction on this field. ( “Pennsylvania at Gettysburg; Ceremonies at the Dedication of the Monuments”)


Veterans for Peace salutes the courage of these men of the 90th Pennsylvania, to place this monument to life on a Gettysburg ridge line so dominated by monuments of defiant officers , charging men and selectively remembered martial glory. I wish that we could hear from them this Memorial Day, these men of the 90th Pennsylvania.  We  would welcome them as fellow Veterans for  Peace.


- Brad Cotton,

President, Chapter 923, ( Southern Ohio) Veterans for Peace