The 152nd anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg came to a conclusion last Friday afternoon after three full days of hikes, walks, and talks. Speaking on behalf of the entire staff, we were overwhelmed with the interest, support, and enthusiasm the thousands of visitors who hiked the battlefield with us brought to Gettysburg National Military Park. It was truly a pleasure and an honor to be on the field one hundred and fifty two years to the day after the battle was fought, with such an interested and dedicated crowd.
The battle anniversary took a slight departure this year from previous formats. Normally our concluding program is the retracing of Pickett’s Charge (Or the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble-Lang-Wilcox Assault for those of you uninterested in brevity) on the afternoon of July 3rd. This year however we were pleased to work with our partners in the Gettysburg Foundation to mark the end of battle anniversary and the start of our Sacred Trust Lecture Series with a special Friday evening panel discussion.
I was fortunate enough to take part in that panel, alongside Drs. Timothy Orr, Keith Harris, and James Marten. The ensuing discussion, moderated by Park Historian John Heiser, turned into one of the highlights of the battle anniversary.
Focused around the central theme of “How veterans told the story of their war,” each panelist had roughly five minutes to discuss some particular aspect or component of that larger question. A fascinating series of presentations ensued which ranged from the limits of reconciliation, the varied and often contradictory memories of the veterans, the Confederate flag, and the best veteran-penned memoirs to emerge from the war. The entire panel discussion was filmed by our partners at the Gettysburg Foundation and will soon be available for viewing on their website. I highly recommend watching it.
As interesting as the individual panelists were the highlight of the evening came, as it often does, from the questions posed by the members of the audience. One in particular provoked a great deal of thought, not only during the panel, but afterwards also.
Are we, as a country, reconciled from the American Civil War? Has reconciliation been accomplished?
I suppose part of the challenge in answering that question resides in its definition. What does it mean to be reconciled? What does it mean to us today and what did it mean to the individuals who experienced the American Civil War firsthand? Does it involve anything more than a begrudging acceptance of the changes brought about by the conclusion of the war? Does it mean forgiving? Does it mean forgetting?
Alongside “reconstruction” and “reunion,” two terms it is often confused with, reconciliation represents the third, and by far most subjective, of the “R” word triumvirate that defined post-war America. By the end of 1865 reunion was a fact. The country had been physically and politically reunited, the Confederacy had been crushed and its armies in the field had been vanquished. Reconstruction was the political, physical, and social act of rebuilding the south and bringing it back into the Union while simultaneously grappling with the new social order that resulted from the abolition of four million enslaved people. Reconciliation though would necessitate the restoration of amicable, if not harmonious, relations between two once warring peoples, including and encompassing those who shouldered a weapon, those who experienced the war on the home front, and those whose freedom was ultimately secured by the conflict.
By the turn of the century many of the veterans of the war seemed to have cautiously embraced the idea of a reconciled country, provided it was a reconciled country that embraced their particular viewpoint on the war. Fairly typical, of the veterans anyways, was the standpoint of Union veteran F. H. Harris who remarked in his speech at the dedication of the 13th New Jersey monument on the Gettysburg battlefield, “When our misguided brethren lately in arms against us say ‘forgive,’ let us, in accordance with the principles of the religion we profess, say, with outstretched hands and cordial greetings, ‘forgiven;’ but let us never forget that treason was treason, and that loyalty was loyalty.”
Many former Confederates were just as eager to bury the hatchet, though they refused to concede the worthiness of their cause. As Gen. Bennett H. Young, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, stated in an oration during the 1913 reunion at Gettysburg, “The Confederate comes here with his heart still loyal to the South and to those who made the four years of the Confederate nation’s life resplendent with heroism, glory, and noblest sacrifice.What we ask for ourselves we freely and cheerfully accord to the other side. You had great soldiers; you had hundreds of thousands of men whose hearts were touched with the truest instincts of patriotism…Build them monuments wherever you will, laud their courage and their virtues as you may, write in unnumbered volumes the story of their achievements, and enshrine in your hearts the sacrifices of the millions who fought and thought as you fought and thought. We only claim the same right as to our dead comrades.”
Ultimately reconciliation would be as difficult to achieve as it would be to quantify, measure, and define. It would not be achieved through legislation or military conquest. It wasn’t a state, county, or town issue. If it was to be achieved at all it would have to be done on an individual basis. In the end reconciliation was deeply personal, made easier or more difficult depending on the individual in question and their vantage point on the war and the issues at stake. I suppose it remains so today.
One hundred and fifty years following the conclusion of the conflict many of the consequences, meanings, causes, and symbols of the war are still being passionately, eloquently, and occasionally violently debated. No more than a cursory glance at the most recent headlines will testify to the continued volatility of the very same issues that were debated a century and a half ago. In Charleston, South Carolina an alleged gunman who took as his personal symbol the “Confederate battle flag” killed nine innocent church goers. In Memphis, Tennessee city officials have initiated a discussion that could result in the exhumation and removal of the remains of Nathan Bedford Forrest from a city park, while on the Gettysburg battlefield Union and Confederate reenactors symbolically join hands across a rock wall that was once the site of death and carnage.
So, the question remains. Are we reconciled? Is true reconciliation even possible? What does reconciliation even mean in 21st century America? We’d be interested in hearing what you have to say.
Christopher Gwinn, Gettysburg National Military Park