Book Habit Blog - Gettysburg: The Last Invastion
At its best, history lets us skip across time, our imaginations settling us into a place well beyond our years or our ability to have witnessed events. Good historians find the moments that will help us make metaphysical visits.
For example, in Guelzo’s Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, on the third day of the battle, the Confederate cannonade prior to the launch of Pickett’s Charge was likely the loudest sound heard on the North American continent since it had been inhabited. One hundred sixty+ guns fired for roughly one ½ hour. One hundred miles away, farmers in Chester County looked up at a clear sky and could not figure out what was causing such long, rolling thunder.
Days 1 and 2 of the battle came within minutes of being decisive Confederate victories that might have ended the war by wrecking the Army of the Potomac and thus forcing Lincoln to negotiate a peace. The Union was saved by decisive actions taken by John Reynolds, Paddy O’Rourke, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a suicidal charge by a Minnesota Volunteers and desperate counterattacks by troops from Ohio and Indiana. In other words, actions taken that showed supreme initiative and daring by staff officers and ordinary men, well-led, who rose to the occasion.
There are repeated cases of men from both sides, moments after the most bloody hand to hand combat, stopping to provide water and comfort to the wounded no matter their uniform.
The Army of Northern Virginia traveled with tens of thousands of slaves who worked as teamsters and servants. The Confederates kidnapped and drove south, any black men and women, free or escaped, who they came across during their invasion. They were sold into slavery. Their names are almost wholly unknown.
Those metaphysical visits and the images we bring back might be so powerful as to change our own lives through the stories we retain. Their stories are everything. They place all the events and their details on a human scale. They give drama and individuality to what has passed but for our taking in of the historian’s good work. They give us the sight to see the gracious and terrible and brilliant humanity of those long gone and often forgotten.