Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker.
Gettysburg was a definitive battle in the Civil War, a flash point in American history that still shapes the country’s identity. This summer marks the 150th anniversary of that battle, which began on July 1, 1863. Kojo explores how its history continues to shape who we are and the pieces of it that remain the most relevant in modern American society.
- Frank Smith Founder and Director, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
- Allen Guelzo Author, "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion" (Knopf, 2013); Professor, Director, Civil War Era Studies Program, Gettysburg College
- Tony Horwitz author, 'Midnight Rising:John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War' (Henry Holt)
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from GETTYSBURG: The Last Invasion by Allen C. Guelzo. Copyright © 2013 by Allen C. Guelzo. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Gettysburg is a place that lays claim to its own chapter in the greater American story, a battle that was the turning point in the Civil War, a venue for a speech that defined the American ethos. But many of the popular accounts of what happened 150 years ago, the tales that are woven into our cultural fabric are also detached from what actually happed on that battlefield.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd some of the pieces of that history that lived with us and continues to shape our national identity are conveniently removed from the darkest and most grotesque realities of war. Joining us to shape how Gettysburg is still with us today and what we can learn about who we are now by studying what happened there a century-and-a-half ago is Frank Smith. He is the founder and director of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C., a former council member on the D.C. Council. Frank Smith, thank you for joining us.
MR. FRANK SMITHGlad to be here with you.
NNAMDIJoining us from studios in Northfield, New Jersey is Allen Guelzo. He is the Henry Lewis professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. where he's also director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. He's the author of "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion." Allen Guelzo, thank you for joining us.
MR. ALLEN GUELZOOh, it's very good to be here.
NNAMDIAnd Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His books include "Confederates in the Attic" and "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." He joins us from studios in Vineyard Haven, Mass. Tony Horwitz, thank you for joining us.
MR. TONY HORWITZThanks for having me.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for us, give us a call at 800-433-8850. What do you think we can learn about who we are now by revisiting the history of the Battle of Gettysburg from 150 years ago, 800-433-8850? Or shoot us an email to kojo K-O-J-O @wamu.org. Tony Horwitz, on July 1st, just two weeks from now, we'll reach that 150th anniversary. For some people this is cause to make a pilgrimage to the battlefield itself.
NNAMDIBut you wrote for The Atlantic yesterday that this sesquicentennial anniversary is also cause to question popular accounts of the battle and remind ourselves about the brutality of war. Why do you feel this is necessary? What about this battle in particular do you find to be so, well, misunderstood?
HORWITZWell, I think it's more that Gettysburg is the most famous moment of the Civil War. And it gives us an opportunity to look at the war generally. And in the story, what I was writing about was the ways in which some historians are rethinking the Civil War. And one aspect to this is a heightened recognition of the horror, the killing, the mutilation, the suffering of civilians. Another I think is a deeper appreciation of what historians call contingency, that this could've ended very differently at Gettysburg and during the war with cessation and/or slavery still intact.
HORWITZAnd I think there's a sort of more somber recognition that this war had great accomplishments. But let's also take a full accounting of the costs and at least ask whether this was the necessary noble conflict that most Americans imagine. And I think Gettysburg as the greatest and most horrific battle of that war is a good moment to do that.
NNAMDIWell, Tony, you've covered modern war as a journalist in Bosnia and Middle East. You've helped to write what some people think of as the first draft of history, so to speak, from modern events. What were the first draft of histories of Gettysburg and the Civil War like? Has this battle always been seen as more of a triumph than as a bloodbath?
HORWITZWell, a lot of the initial reports, as is still the case, were very confused. In fact, Southern papers were reporting for as long as a week after the battle that actually the South had won. So I think the initial reports were quite confused. But not long after that people recognized this had been a great Union victory. And really a turning point in the conflict. Perhaps Dr. Guelzo could speak to that more authoritatively than I could.
HORWITZBut there weren't reporters, you know, there at the scene. They got there soon after. And we have the famous photographs largely of the Gettysburg dead. And I think this is one of the reasons Gettysburg looms so large in our imagination is it's so well documented. We don't have that kind of documentation of the battlefield, particularly that photographic record from say Shiloh or Vicksburg or other important battles.
NNAMDIWell, Allen Guelzo, this is your turf quite literally. Your life is in Gettysburg. Your work revolves around this history. For those who are not as familiar with the battle, why is this considered to be such a definitive moment in the Civil War, and then later a definitive moment in American history?
GUELZOI think because it was, in a lot of respects, a definite moment and a turning point moment in the Civil War. It's not the turning point. When people ask me, what do you think the turning point of the Civil War was, I generally tell them Appomattox because then I know I'm safe. But in truth, what happens at Gettysburg is that the confederate tide really gets stopped and stopped cold. The Confederate Army, especially Robert E. Lee's army of Northern Virginia had run from success to success to success through the first three summers of the war. And it really looked as though this army could not be beaten.
GUELZOThe difficulty of course was that it was fighting most of that war on Virginia territory and devastating Virginia territory. So it was Robert E. Lee's determination that let's get this onto the home turf of the Union and make them feel it. Let's invade Pennsylvania. And that really ups the ante. When Lee's army is defeated at Gettysburg, when they are compelled to retreat, it's the beginning of a very long, very slow but very definitely downward spiral. The fortunes of the confederacy and people in the confederacy feel that the loss at Gettysburg really was a kind of backbreaking moment for the history of the confederacy and its survival.
NNAMDIYou write that in this battle there were moments when confederate forces were only minutes away from breaking the Union line but never did. What did you find when you studied those small windows of time that made the difference in the outcome?
GUELZOTime and again, especially on the 2nd of July, there were moments when the confederacy nearly punched their way through to victory. When the Union defenses were collapsing and dissolving all around them and just a few minutes one way or the other, or maybe a change in location of a unit, that made all the difference in the world.
GUELZOAnd this happened so many times on July 2 that it's almost difficult to give you a full and complete list. A lot of it because ordinary Union officers at very low levels are making decisions on their own without any instructions, without any direction from generals or whatnot. They're making it at their own level as best they can do it. And time and again they manage to make the right decision.
GUELZOThis, I think, is where the contingency factor that Tony's talking about really looms large, because there were so many of these moments. And yet every one of them shifts in favor of the Union. The decisions that get made are all the right ones that are made by Union junior officers, by Union formations. Somehow they do it right every time on July 2 and they save the day, one out of the three days of the battle. But it is contingent because the Confederates did come really, really close time and time again.
GUELZOThis was not some kind of preordained kind of thing where people look at it and say, well you know, the Confederates obviously had no chance whatsoever. Why were they even doing this? Oh no, they had a lot of advantages that they were working with. And it really comes as something of a surprise by the end of three days that Lee has played all his cards and has not achieved a victory.
NNAMDIFrank Smith, African-American soldiers are not necessarily a big part of this particularly battlefield history of Gettysburg, but it's my understanding that you lead a group every November to go up and visit the site. Why do you find that it's so necessary to bear witness to what happened there?
SMITHWell, you know, let me just say -- back up for a minute. One of the problems we discuss in the Civil War is that we do get caught up in what weapons we use and whether it was a right flank for a left flank and who crossed a river at what point and who could've stayed at home and things would've been different.
SMITHBut by the time we get to Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It takes effect on January 1. They're building a Union army with African-American soldiers in it. On May 22 -- the lead up to July 1, on May 22nd African-American soldiers involved in the Battle of Port Hudson. And then following Gettysburg three days -- I mean, two weeks later, we get the Battle of Fort Wagner where the Massachusetts 54th gets involved in that major battle there.
SMITHSo Lincoln is amassing an army of African-American soldiers. Now these soldiers are coming onboard not only to support the Union Army but also they've been pulled away from the Southern political and economic apparatus that's supporting the Confederate Army. So my view is that whatever happened on the battlefield at Gettysburg, it is somewhat preordained that this war was going to end the way it did.
SMITHAnd I have a couple of anecdotes that I want to give you about that.
SMITHBecause we do have -- we have a relationship with Gettysburg. I'll give you one example. We have the African-American Civil War Museum. We have a rifle that belongs to a soldier who was in the Battle of Gettysburg. He was not an African-American soldier. He was a white soldier who became famous to us because his parents -- his descendents brought this rifle in and donated it to us. So we now have it on exhibit at the museum.
SMITHWell, it turns out that this person was in the Battle of Gettysburg. On the first day of battle he fainted at the first sign of fun fire. He just passed out, died. I mean, they thought he died -- actually thought he was dead. They drag him off at the end of the battle, take him to the hospital, can't find anything wrong with him. There are no wounds, there's no gunshots, there's no knife wounds, there's nothing. The poor soul just fainted, passed out.
SMITHSo while he was in the hospital somebody says to him, you know what? You should join one of those African-American regiments. First of all, Abraham Lincoln has no intention of ever letting them fight. And secondly, they'll make you an officer. So now we get this guy as an officer in one of these African-American regiments. Now they do eventually fight in the Battle of Petersburg, by the way. Not Gettysburg but Petersburg. So we do have an artifact that ties us back to the Battle of Gettysburg.
NNAMDI...to the Battle of Gettysburg. Frank Smith is the founder and director of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum here in Washington, D.C. He joins us in studio. Joining us from studios in Northfield, New Jersey is Allen Guelzo, Henry Lewis professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Va. He's also director of the Civil War Era Studies Program there. He's the author of "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion."
NNAMDIAnd Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His books include "Confederates in the Attic" and "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think we've lost the sense of how violent the Battle of Gettysburg really was? How does the common depiction of the battle as a triumph color your opinion of what happened there, 800-433-8850? Here is Sheila in Edmond, W.V. Sheila, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHEILAYes, hello. My name is Sheila Coleman-Kastells (sp?) and I am a former member of the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission of the Civil War, although I happen to be a native Washingtonian. So I want to say hi to Frank and I'll definitely see you when I'm next in town. We should make our acquaintance.
SHEILABut we -- there were four of us in West Virginia who resigned en mass in 2000 - I'm sorry, 2011 from the Sesquicentennial Commission, much to our dismay, because we felt that just the issue that you're bringing up, the fact that the Civil War in general, but some of the more famous battles are quite trivialized. And the gravitas is not a sign to them that is really necessary given their position in American history that we, you know -- and again, not to take anything away from historic re-enactors, that is an important role. And those folks who do that play an important role.
SHEILABut that's not all there is to the study of the Civil War. This wasn't...
NNAMDIHello, Sheila. We're losing you. Sheila, I think we've lost you. Care to comment on what Sheila was, if not explicitly saying -- implying because she's not on anymore, Tony Horwitz?
HORWITZI'm not sure. Was she saying that for instance battles like Battle of Wagner and Port Hudson deserve more attention and that it shouldn't be all Gettysburg? I'm not sure what -- I'm sorry.
NNAMDIOh, she's back.
HORWITZOh, here, she's back.
NNAMDIShe will speak for herself. Sheila, go ahead, please. We lost you for a minute there.
SHEILAOh, okay. Thank you. No, what I'm saying is that the Civil War was extremely important. But unfortunately the information about the Civil War that I think needs to go to the general public, the level of education, the level of awareness about the impact of the war has been lost. And what has remained now are simply, as someone said when this first began, the discussion of the various battles and whether or not, you know, General Lee, you know, did the right thing by placing men here and there or whatever.
SHEILAAnd the real political socioeconomic issues, the things that actually brought us to war haven't been discussed. And one last thing, the fact that much of the United States -- in my opinion and the opinion of many other scholars, much of the United States is still feeling the repercussions of the racial and economic strife that led to the Civil War. That has to remain in our conversation and it hasn't been. And I think, you know, given today that today is the 150th birthday of the only state born out of the Civil War, this is worthy of discussion. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIThank you. Allen Guelzo, well she did put some context there. Go ahead, please. Care to respond to that?
GUELZOWell, I don't -- I'd say this. West Virginia is an example of a cessation from cessation. That's why West Virginia exists. It was the counties of western Virginia and the mountains of western Virginia that were not sympathetic to cessation. Didn't mean necessarily that they were sympathetic to abolishing slavery, but it did mean that they did not want to join the rest of Virginia in becoming part of the Confederacy.
GUELZOAnd so they staged their own withdrawal which provides something of a political question and a constitutional problem for the Lincoln Administration because strictly speaking, according to the Constitution, one part of a state cannot secede from another part unilaterally and have itself recognized as a state. And Lincoln has to tiptoe around that one. So this is an example of what Sheila's talking about when she talks about the political and legal and constitutional issues.
GUELZOI mean, this is a war, but it's also a war about politics. And it's a war in which legal decisions and legal problems actually play an outsize role. And you have moments in the Civil War, particularly -- and I think as the example here is a bundle of cases that were known as prize cases as were about the blockade. And if the Supreme Court had changed one vote in its decision in prize cases, they could've fundamentally altered the legal status of the blockade, whether there could've been a blockade at all, whether there would've been international repercussions.
GUELZOIt was a five to four decision that upheld the Lincoln Administration, but change one vote on the Supreme Court and in some senses it hardly would've mattered what a number of battlefield outcomes would've been because that particular legal decision would've rewritten everything.
NNAMDIFrank Smith, you have spent the majority of your life either as a Civil Rights activist or as a politician. Following up on what Sheila talked about, what do you see are the most important aspects of this issue?
SMITHWell, let me try to see if I can improvise with Sheila on this point. I think what happens when you talk about the Battle at Gettysburg, you lose the more -- you know, this question, what was the war all about. And let me just say, it took an act of Congress to get the park service to interpret slavery as the cause of the Civil War because why did we need that the same way we needed a Fair Housing Act and other acts because they were doing it wrong for all those many years.
SMITHAll you had to do was go back and look at the cessation papers from the states of Alabama and Mississippi and my home state of Georgia and others. These people voted on articles that said they wanted to defend slavery and they were withdrawing from the Union because of Lincoln's attitude toward slavery. So that's what the war was all about and not about these individual battles that we see that sort of lead up to it.
SMITHAnd by the--that's why I said earlier, by the time we get to Gettysburg the government is already amassing an army that includes African Americans. They've formed these regiments and these regiments are being battle tested. And they will become crucial toward the end of the war in a siege of Richmond when the 25th Army Corps is amassed where Grant systematically brings over his regiments -- his seasoned regiments from around the Mississippi River. The ones that have been involved in the Battle of Nashville, Tennessee to really chase Robert E. Lee toward his demise at Appomattox. They were right on his tail by the time he gets there.
SMITHSo I think that's really what she was trying to say is that we managed to get this thing to a discussion about right flanks and left flanks and who has the mountainside and who has the river. And really, in many instances, have lost what the context is. And let me just mention. You asked me earlier, why did we go to Gettysburg every year, in November in particular.
SMITHBecause November is not the Battle of -- that we're all talking about here, the Battle of Gettysburg. We go up there for a lot of reasons but the main one is this. What we find is that when we allow these very large reenactments to take place -- and there are no African-American soldiers there -- the conversation's all about this right flank, left flank and how many bullets were fired, how many rifles were left on the battlefield.
SMITHThe moment we show up in uniform then the context changes. Because now here comes some African American soldiers with bullets in their pockets and rifles on their shoulders and U.S. on their lapel, as Frederick Douglas said. Now all of a sudden this thing has a whole new discussion and a new context. And we find that that happens in that parade in Gettysburg every year when we are there, and it doesn't happen when we're not there.
SMITHSo we're determined not to let that parade go on any longer without some African-American presence. Because we think people ought to be reminded that this Civil War was a war about slavery. And it ended with three amendments that abolished slavery in the United States, made black people citizens and that third one gave African Americans the right to vote.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy you can go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The phone number though is 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about Gettysburg. We're talking with Frank Smith, founder and director of the African-American Civil War museum and -- Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington, D.C. Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. His books include "Confederates in the Attic" and "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War." And Allen Guelzo is the Henry Lewis professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa. where he's also director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. He's the author of "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion."
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Allen, Pickett's charge and Little Round Top, those are the things that are taught to school children across America. But you found it necessary to knock down some of the most popular misconceptions of the war, including these events. Why was this necessary and where do these misconceptions come from?
GUELZOWell, let's take Little Round Top as an example. Little Round Top has become sanctified almost in the imaginations of many people through Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels" and the subsequent movie that was made based on the novel, as the place where the battle all happened. That Little Round Top was the key feature on the battlefield. And the heroic moment occurred when the 20th Maine volunteers under Joshua Chamberlain staged their counterattack that sweeps the Alabama regiments that are trying to seize Little Round Top back and, for all practical purposes, out of operation.
GUELZOAnd I think in some respects this is true. I don't want to take anything away from Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. They did the right thing. What I think is important is to realize how much Chamberlain's action and the action of his regiment was something which was replicated over and over and over again, especially on July 2, especially this matter of individual commanders, individual units acting in quite an extraordinary way on their own without prompting and direction from on high.
GUELZOSo it's not that Chamberlain is wrong. It's not that Little Round Top is wrong. It's that it's only part of the overall right view of seeing things, which is to say that this happens consistently throughout this battle. And if it doesn't happen then what happens as a result? I mean, one thing I'd probably want to turn the tables on a little bit here with Frank Smith is to say, well what would have happened if the Battle of Gettysburg had been lost by the Union Army? Would that have made a difference?
GUELZOAnd I think when we sit down and think about it, it would have made all the difference in the world, even to the point where emancipation itself could have, politically at least, been made to disappear from the American consciousness.
SMITHWell, yes, since you asked me a question, let me try to answer it. You know, I have actually intrigued and often stumped audiences myself by asking what would've happened if the Confederates had won the Civil War. What would've happened to the United States? And I'm not talking about the Battle of Gettysburg. I'm talking if they would've been triumphant in the war. And that's the more important question is what would've happened if they had been triumphant.
SMITHBecause I think that these issues that got fought out afterwards in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment would likely have not -- they would've been fought out anyway because the Democrats -- I mean, the Republican's controlled the congress. And they would've been fought out anyway, probably differently. But the -- and it would've taken much longer. But I think that the death knell for slavery was already in place.
SMITHBut once they started bringing these guys into the Union Army and making an issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, I think that's -- the real result of the Civil War was that, not the victory at Gettysburg. Let me also just make one other point. For the generals -- for Grant who was the main general who wins this war, for him the most important thing that happened on July 3 I believe it is, was the fall of Vicksburg, Miss. Because it was Vicksburg, Miss. that actually opened up the Mississippi River and allows them to split the confederacy in half from a military point of view.
SMITHHe looked at that as the most important victory. And in Mississippi, by the way, for years and years and years African-Americans celebrate anywhere -- I mean, July 1 -- I'm sorry, July 4th, 4th of July as Independence Day, as their own emancipation day in Mississippi because that's the day that Vicksburg surrendered to Grant.
NNAMDITony Horwitz, back to the Little Round Top issue. We got an email from David who says, "The title of Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels" comes from Shaara's account of a conversation with a young Joshua Chamberlain -- that a young Joshua Chamberlain has with his father and of a speech he later gives at college. Is there any evidence that these moments in Chamberlain's life actually occurred?"
HORWITZOh gosh, I'm not an expert on that. I would add to what Allen said, that Chamberlain survives this battle, becomes, you know, a prominent university president public figure. He has an opportunity to articulate and perpetuate, if not the myth, the exaggeration of the importance of his role at Gettysburg. And so I think that's just a small example of how history is made or why it is that we remember what we do.
HORWITZI'd just like to follow up for a minute on what Frank and Allen have been talking about. And perhaps a way to bring the battle and the big picture together on this issue of African-Americans who are not in fact absent at Gettysburg. There are thousands -- perhaps Allen can give us a more precise figure -- of enslaved men accompanying Lee's army as laborers, cooks, servants. Also Gettysburg has a free black population that has to flee because Lee's army also has slave catchers who would capture blacks and carry them back south into slavery. And I think anyone who wants to romanticize the army of Northern Virginia or the Southern causes should remember that.
GUELZOOne of the chief elements in the mythology of the lost cause has been that when Lee invades Pennsylvania, everyone is on the QT to be a chivalrous gentleman. And the only thing that Lee's army leaves behind is its footprints. And this could not be more untrue. I mean, it's not because Lee's army were more ogres than anyone else's army in the 19th century. Nineteenth century armies lived off the land. That was a given.
GUELZOIn this case, however, what is included in living off the land is, as Tony says, the kidnapping of approximately 500 free Pennsylvania black people who are then shackled up and marched south to the Richmond salves markets to be sold. And this is nothing that most Confederate lost causes remembrancers (sic) of Gettysburg really like to talk about. But they disappear from the record. We have no idea what happened to these people.
GUELZOAlso it's not just black people. There are at least nine citizens of Gettysburg who are hauled off as hostages by the Confederate Army. And they spend the rest of the war in Richmond. One of them, in fact, dies only a few days after he's finally released at the end of the war. So the behavior of armies in the 19th century is not always pretty. And the Confederate Army is not any prettier than any other.
GUELZOAnd it's for this reason of course, as Tony says, a large number, if not all of the black population of Gettysburg flees the town ahead of the oncoming Confederate Army. Because they know very well what could very easily be their fate if they are captured by Confederates who are skirmishing in the area or who are beating the bushes through the area trying to find whatever it is that's not nailed down.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Matt, but I think Frank Smith may have already answered this. Matt write, "I always found it interesting that Gettysburg gets more attention, whereas Grant's campaign against Vicksburg was a greater victory for the North by securing the Mississippi River. Grant's campaign was well planned and a determined victory on his terms. By my opinion is that modern attention to Gettysburg is based on modern fictional literature. What are your panelists' opinions on this?"
NNAMDIFrank, you already stated yours. Tony Horwitz, I'd like to hear yours.
HORWITZWell, I think that's an overstatement. I mean, as that one said, I think "Killer Angels" has certainly given Little Round Top and Joshua Chamberlain, you know, more attention than he deserves. I think it's really, though, about the Gettysburg Address. I mean, obviously we remember Gettysburg because of the scale, the drama. You know, it's three acts climaxing with Pickett's charge, clear Union victory. But it's really the Gettysburg Address in which Lincoln gives transcendent meaning to this slaughter. I think that's, for me, what really sets Gettysburg apart and makes it so enduring in American memory.
NNAMDIA lot of callers want to get in on this conversation. Tom in Alexandria, Va., your turn.
TOMYeah, hi, Kojo Nnamdi. Thank you. Yeah, I just had a question. There's always numerous military lessons, particularly in Europe, that were learned from the Civil War. I was just curious, what were some of the political lessons you thought were learned from the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War in general by European political leaders during and post the Civil War in America?
NNAMDIHave you ever looked into that, Allen Guelzo?
GUELZOWell, let's put it this way, that the European nations, most of which are monarchs, aristocrats, they're looking on the Civil War with a great deal of pleasure because in their book the American Civil War is the suicide moment of the American Republic. Here is the last major freestanding democracy from the great age of democratic revolutions putting itself out of their agony. And as a result, they're hoping, as strongly as they can, that the confederacy is going to win because the confederacy embodies the aristocratic principle. That was what they perceived.
GUELZOSo when the war in fact turns out the other way, this is a bad sign to the monarchs and aristocrats of Europe. And successive European movements, movements for democracy, movements for greater parliamentary expansion, even the Paris Commune in 1871, all of these partake and look back to the success of the democratic principle in the American Civil War as an inspiration.
GUELZOSo the Europeans look at this but the -- what they draw from it is really dismay at the fact that the American Republic has not in fact self -- destroyed itself. It, in fact, has survived and looks like it's going to come back even stronger on the strength of the kind of rhetoric that you get from a president like Abraham Lincoln, who becomes this great inspiration. Not only in Europe, but in Latin America as well.
SMITHWell, let me just add one other twist to this too. I think the Europeans were looking at this from another point of view also, which is that if the South had won this war and succeeded in splitting American in half with the support of England, which was the primary military world force at that time, perhaps they would've teamed up and taken over the rest of the country. So America wouldn't have been divided into two parts, one slave and one free. They probably would've spread slavery throughout the United -- this Republic.
GUELZOOh, that's true.
SMITHWhich is one of the reasons why Lincoln's -- the Emancipation Proclamation became such a masterful political act in this process, because it made the Union Army an army of liberation, and no longer just an army that was trying to protect one class or one section against another. Which I think supports the monarchy position that he was talking about earlier.
SMITHBut by then this whole process had changed, is the point I wanted to make. I think that the proclamation which took effect January 1, 1863, six months before the Battle of Gettysburg, had already changed the trajectory of the war.
GUELZOWell, do you think in that case that if Abraham Lincoln had not been reelected in 1864, if George McClellan instead had been elected as the Democratic candidate in 1864, do you think that the Emancipation Proclamation would've survived in George McClellan's hands?
SMITHWell, let me -- let me answer you the same way I answered the other thing. I quoted Grant's statement about Vicksburg as opposed to Gettysburg, because Grant was the general who won the war. I think that the general who wins the war ought to get a little bit more credit for his assessment of which one of these battles was important, and that was what Grant said about that.
SMITHWith regards to what would have happened if my, you know, my view is that the -- that once you put bullets in people's pockets, and rifles on their shoulders, they've now squared off and fought for a year or two against what were there former slave holders. They're never going to be reenslaved again. So I don't care how nostalgic people might feel about America would have -- might have reverted back to what it was as a slave state. That wasn't going to happen in the United States.
NNAMDIRegardless of whether Lincoln won or not.
SMITHIt was not going to happen. We would have fought it out with him on the battlefields, and we would have -- we would have...
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Allen Guelza?
GUELZOWell, we had a situation earlier in our history that parallels this pretty closely, and that was the American Revolution, where large numbers of slaves, and I do mean large numbers, ran away to British forts, British lines of occupation, where regiments were recruited that put weapons into the hands of black men, and put scarlet uniforms on their backs and sent them out to fight in the name of the king.
GUELZOThe British lost that was, and when they did, the first thing they did was to cast off the black people whom they had brought into their lines and promised protection to. The black soldiers were just thrown to the wolves, and they were reenslaved. George Washington had a slave who ran away to the British and the British turned him back over when the peace treaty was signed in 1783, and in fact, slavery became more onerous in this county.
GUELZOSo at the end of the day -- at the end of the day, even the British are not able to enforce the kind of promises of emancipation that they made...
SMITHBecause they lost the war.
GUELZO...during the American Revolution. Yeah, because the last the war. That's the critical thing. It really did come down to where the armies of the -- were the union armies going to be successful in battle. If you don't have the union armies successful in battle, then the emancipation proclamation becomes a piece of paper politically.
SMITHWell, but there's also one other thing that I want to add, and I think this ought to be -- the public ought to get this. Wherever the -- at the point -- when the Civil War started with 3.9 million black people being held as slaves, they were -- the majority of the population in many of these states, whichever side they went with in this war was going to win the war. Lincoln was clever enough to bring them into -- and if you don't then take the end of -- by the time this war is over, Lincoln has issued a proclamation, they're bringing them in, and in March of 1865 the confederacy itself is trying to figure how to enlist blacks in the war.
SMITHWhy? Because they now realize they need them in order to win. So that's the point I'm making. I think that the sole trajectory was changed permanently, and the rest of this is mere details.
NNAMDITony Horwitz, back to Gettysburg. How do go about separating the different narratives of what happened in this war and in this battle? You note in the piece you did for The Atlantic that while the accounts of generals often speak of gallantry and heroism, others include things like sprayed brains, missing arms, that kind of thing.
HORWITZYeah. And I think this is something that historians are giving more attention too, and Allen, actually I spoke to him for my piece, and quote him saying that the soldiers themselves after the war rarely dwelled on this horror in their writing. They preferred to talk about the nobility and sacrifice of the war, and historians, to some degree, followed their lead. They didn't draw a veil over this, but they would cite the numbing totals.
HORWITZI mean, Gettysburg, 50,000 roughly, casualties. If you adjust that for today's population, that's 500,000 men in three days of battle. We haven't talked about that I think in graphic enough detail until recently. What happened when you were shot? What happened when you went in for an amputation in a day before germ theory, when doctors' hands and saws spread infection?
HORWITZYou know, all these -- really these horrors of war that I think we need to look at a little harder as we, you know, celebrate the valor of a picket's charge, or a little round top. The example I use in my piece is a place at Gettysburg called Iverson's Pits where roughly 500 North Carolinians, it was almost like a firing squad. They were just cut down. People who saw it described their feet being perfectly aligned. You know, where's the glory in that kind of combat?
SMITHThere's also the Battle of Fort Pillow where African American soldiers...
SMITH...were massacred, and the Battle of Saltville where they were massacred. And let me mention one other thing about this. You know, one of the names that's listed on our Wall of Honor at the African American Civil War Memorial is a guy named Cesar Cohen C-O-H-E-N. Cesar Cohen is the great-great-great-great-grandfather of First Lady Michelle Obama. He was in South Carolina in Georgetown when the war started during the 128th USCT.
SMITHSaw a little action before he was hurt and went into a hospital, and the conditions in the hospital and treatment were so horrific he finally left and went back home. So there are some stories about people who have -- who not only celebrated the glory of this war, but also many of them who really got a look at what the inside of it was like and said they wanted no more of it.
NNAMDIBut before we take a break, Tony Horwitz, how do you feel that those kinds of -- the absence of the characterizations of some of the horrors of this war has affected the way we have viewed wars since then?
HORWITZYeah. I think it -- we always kind of forget the horrors of war from one to the next. Or not completely forget, but it fades to a degree, and we don't go into wars with our eyes open about, you know, what the costs are going to be. We think about the achievement of great aims, we're off to liberate the people of Iraq. We don't dwell, perhaps as much as we should on well, gee, how many people are going to be killed and permanently disabled on both sides.
HORWITZWe tend to get caught up in the moment, and I think studying the Civil War is a good way to sober us about that.
NNAMDIGot to take that break now. Thank you very much if you called. We'll -- you've been very patient. Stay on the line. We will try to get to your calls. The lines are all busy, so if you're trying to get through now, shoot us an email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about Gettysburg. We're talking with Tony Horwitz. He's a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author. His books include "Confederates in the Attic" and "Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War." Allen Guelza is the Henry Luce professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where he's also director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. He's the author of "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion."
NNAMDIFrank Smith is the founder and director of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington D.C. Back to the telephones. Here now is Carol in Silver Spring, Md. Carol, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLHello. I'm calling in because I am part of a musical called "Gettysburg: The Musical."
CAROLAnd we're going to be performing on Saturday the 29th in Gettysburg.
NNAMDISo this is really just a public service announcement?
CAROLOh, you know, a little bit.
SMITHThe 29th of what, Carol?
CAROLThe 29th of June, next Saturday.
CAROLAnd we're very excited about doing it because we're going to be part of some of the Seminary Ridge things that are going to be going on, and new museums opening.
CAROLAnd we honor and hold in highest esteem the men and the woman who lived and died during the civil war.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call, Carol. Got this email from Jonathan. It says, "Be it Gettysburg, Shiloh, or other bloody Civil War battles, did numbers of the dead and wounded seem as horrifically large to people back then as they do today? And in follow up, what do your guests think we are so much more -- why do your guests think we are so much more sensitive to casualty numbers today? In all fairness, although any death is tragic by comparison, Afghanistan and Iraq were comparatively light in terms of battlefield casualties. Is that a hopeful sign, or just a concern of losing America's support like the government experienced in Vietnam?"
NNAMDISince you've been talking about this Tony Horwitz, I'll go back to you on this.
HORWITZYeah. I think it's important just to constantly remind ourselves of the scale of the Civil War, and there's still debate over how many people died, and there are new estimates that put it at close to 750,000. Again, the population was one-tenth as large in the 1860s, so that would be equivalent to, you know, roughly seven million people dying today. So I think it's just very hard to wrap your mind around that degree of loss, and I think it helps us appreciate why this war was so traumatic to Americans at the time.
HORWITZAnd I think they certainly -- yes. We're appalled by the number of dead. Nobody expected going into this war that it would be anything like this, and there are famous comments by Congressmen saying that they'd be able to drink all the bloodshed in this war, mop it up with their handkerchief. You know, the first major battle, Shiloh, or not -- or the first, you know, really horrific in terms of casualties, it's equal to all the casualties in American wars up to that point combined. So this really was a different order of magnitude, and I think they did recognize that.
NNAMDIAllen -- go ahead, Frank.
SMITHKojo, could I just say one thing before we go?
SMITHI think we have failed to put this into the proper context here. This Civil War, as President Lincoln said, was about whether this was going to one nation or two nations, one slave and one free, separate and divisive. And remember his goal was to keep this nation united, and he said, I'll do that whichever way I can, whether I have to do something about slavery or not. So he was trying to keep this nation united. Now, if that's the big goal, it takes a big sacrifice to do this under the circumstances because the south is determined that it is going to split the nation in two. That's one goal.
SMITHThe other one, he eventually reached the point where he realized he had to do something about slavery in order to win the war. There are 3.9 million African American who live -- who are being held in the United States at this time as slaves claimed as property. At our museum, we have an exhibit that's for a slave woman who was sold for $1,000. If we put a $1,000 value on each one of those 3.9 million slaves, that's almost $4 billion in 1860 money. And somebody in the audience want to translate it in today's dollars.
SMITHSo we're talking about significant issues here that now are on the table, and they have to be resolved somehow or another, and I think Lincoln, to his credit, did the right thing is bringing African Americans and basically saying you've guys have got to put some skin in this game too to help us -- especially about slavery. You got to put some skin in this game in order for people to be able to respect you and support you.
SMITHAnd of course we hear these words again when people are debating the 13th Amendment in the Congress, they said these men earned their right to freedom on the battlefield. They earned their right to citizenship on the battlefield, and they earned their right to vote on the battlefield. And, of course, you know, women don't get the right to vote until 1919. So it's a significant thing that happens, you know, in American history, and I think the public ought to realize that this was a major war about major issues, and there was a lot of bloodshed by everybody in this thing, but we got a good result out of it, and we ought to be glad.
NNAMDIBecause the stakes were so big. Allen, last year we talked with Tony about how pop culture and entertainment can serve as gateway drugs for learning about history. It's my understanding that you feel that defeat is often a gateway for mythology to develop. How do you attribute the confederate defeat at Gettysburg to mythology that pervades the south to this day?
GUELZOWell, I think part of the mythology arises from how people try to explain the loss. After the Battle of Gettysburg, in fact, even before the confederate army has made it back across the Potomac River into Virginia, already the blame game begins, and fingers are getting pointed, and certain targets are being selected within the confederate army as the cause, as the people who are responsible. That's the first stage of making mythology.
GUELZOAnd then the second stage occurs when those people respond and they say, no, no, no, it wasn't our fault, it was someone else's fault because of what we think they did. And then the third stage is when the defenders, the third parties get involved and they take sides, and they begin to say, well, no, you've got to read it this way. No. You've got to read it the other way. And by the time that less than two years has elapsed, you already have the great myths of Gettysburg taking shape and almost all of them are coming out of the blame game that begins in the wake of the battle.
GUELZOAnd those myths about the chivalry of the confederate army, about James Longstreet supposedly not obeying orders, about Jeb Stuart supposedly galloping away and leaving Lee fumbling around blindly in the countryside, all of those are myths that begin with statements of accusation or counteraccusation, and it's from that that so much of the lost cause as a whole actually emerges.
HORWITZCan you repeat for us -- oh, I'm sorry.
NNAMDIOh, go ahead.
HORWITZWell, on that point, there's a wonderful -- a line that I believe Allen quotes in his book from Pickett who is asked repeatedly, you know, how is it that, you know, the confederacy lost at Gettysburg and -- I'm going to butcher the line, so Allen, you can correct me, he says in effect, I always thought the Union Army had something to do with it.
GUELZOYeah. I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it. Perhaps...
HORWITZYeah. You know, and it was all about how do we blame on the southern side and how did we miss this opportunity? Well, you know, the other guys fought pretty darn hard.
GUELZOThe funny thing is, because George Pickett was one of the dimmer bulbs in the confederate chandelier, and yet he really got it absolutely right. They had really seriously underestimated the stubbornness and the tenacity with which the army of the Potomac had thrown its cap down and said, look, we're going to fight this battle, we're going to win this battle, or else we're just going to desert en mass. We're going to go home. But one thing is for certain, this is going to be the battle that makes or breaks things.
NNAMDIOnly got a little more than a minute left, Frank.
SMITHYeah. I was just going to make the comment that the military historians are asking two other questions too. One is whether Lee should have been able to have done this in the first place. He stretched his battle supply lands for hundreds of miles from Richmond to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. And then secondly if the -- if the union or army had been -- followed President Lincoln's orders and hunted this army down, the war would have ended much earlier and that's what they're trying to say now, and it might have ended on more peaceful terms that might have included some kind of a compromise on slavery.
NNAMDIAllen Guelza, we only have about 30 seconds left, but it's my understand that you first visited Gettysburg in the '70s and that you've built so much of your professional and personal life around this war and around this battle site, but that you actually never took a class about the Civil War or about Lincoln as an undergraduate or graduate student. How did this interest develop?
GUELZOI think I had it from the time of my childhood in the years of the Civil War centennial, and it just stuck with me. I never expected I was going to make it anything more than just a kind of intellectual hobby, but, you know, sometimes you just put your hand into the honey jar and you can't quite get it out, and I guess I put my -- that's what I did. I put my hand in the honey jar about Lincoln and the Civil War, and it's been stuck there ever since.
NNAMDIIt happened to Frank Smith in Mississippi while he was there as a student non-violent coordinating committee worker. How did the bug bite you? Ten seconds.
SMITHWell, absolutely. I met a man there who had his grandfather's rifle and his uniform and there was no way I would have known that 40 years later -- and by the way, I have a Ph.D. in planning. I'm not a historian either. So maybe none of us know what we're talking about.
NNAMDIFrank Smith is the founder and director of the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington. Allen Guelza is the Henry Luce professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg. He's the author of "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion." And Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author. Tony Horwitz, Allen Guelza, Frank Smith, thank you all for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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