Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
Thinking in Public
Mohler: This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Dr. Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he also directs the Civil War Era Studies Program. Professor Guelzo earned the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in history from the University of Pennsylvania. A highly acclaimed author and historian, his essays and articles have appeared in publications, ranging from the American Historical Review and the Wilson Quarterly to the Philadelphia Enquirer and the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Professor Guelzo, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Guelzo: Thank you very much.
Mohler: Your book, Gettysburg, is simply staggering. And I say that in light of the fact that Gettysburg as a battle is itself, just to my mind, absolutely staggering. You absolutely get to that when you write in your book that when you look at Gettysburg, you’re looking at not only one of the major turning points in history, but, as you also write, you’re looking at what never had happened before or has happened since: a massive military collision, right here on the continent of North America.
Guelzo: Well it was a very large-scale event. When you total up the number of people who were involved in this, you’re looking at anywhere from 160 to 190 thousand people packed into about fifteen-and-a-half square miles, and, over three days, doing their very best to kill as many of each as they possibly can. If that doesn’t make for a particularly, let us say, stressful, environment, it would be hard to imagine what would.
Mohler: You mentioned a watcher looking at the place of battle, beholding something never seen from this spot and never seen again: two great armies, bound for the greatest and most violent collision the North American continent had ever seen. It seems to me that most Americans know of Gettysburg by reputation, but not by fact, not by historical acquaintance.
Guelzo: It still is for most Americans a big box—it is the kind of thing your ordinary school children can still identify, at least as a term that they recognize. They may not be able to tell you exactly what it is, but at least they can tell you that they ought to know what it is.
Mohler: But what about the scale? I think as we begin this conversation, it’s the epic scale of this battle and what it represents that makes it such a compelling story now 150 years later. We’re writing from a century-and-a-half of distance and it doesn’t look less significant now, but even more so.
Guelzo: Well, I think that’s because as we look back on it we begin to see two things. One is that the Battle of Gettysburg really was a central event in the American Civil War. If it was not exactly what we can call a turning point—and I say that because the war did go one for another twenty-one very bloody months—nevertheless, it was the moment when you might say that the Union cause for the first time found a secure footing. Up until the middle of 1863, the Union armies, especially in the east, had reeled from one defeat to another defeat to the point where it seemed like the Confederate Army, under the command of Robert E. Lee, was simply invincible and could not be defeated at all. Gettysburg cracked the myth of Confederate invincibility. It inflicted on the Confederates the kind of military damage that could not be easily repaired in the nineteenth century.
And from that point onward, the cause of the Confederacy slowly begins to spiral unrelievedly downwards until finally we reach Appomattox. After Gettysburg, the South never found that the sun shone for it again. The larger context is that we see the Civil War as itself being a landmark event, a gigantic, burnt scar across the middle of American history because it was a moment when we came, so to speak, to judgment about whether this democracy really was capable of surviving—not just beginning, not just being carried on, but surviving a severe internal challenge, a major insurrection from within itself. And the Civil War, with Gettysburg at its center, is really the test of whether democracy can sustain something like that.
Mohler: When you began your book, you wrote something of interest to me as a reader and also as an historian looking at this. You write, “Books about battles are not in high fashion since they frequently engender suspicion in prominent places that an interest in war, even a war as distant as the American Civil War, panders to an unhappy streak of destructiveness in the American psyche.” Well it seems also to be reaching something that is at the very heart of America, and that is the question of who we are as a nation. And I think your treatment of the issue of democracy—certainly in Lincoln’s mind and in the national mind a battle for the kind of democracy, the kind of nation America would be—is what is at the deepest level here. But, as you say, it is a book about a battle, and the Civil War—and you point this out a bit tongue-in-cheek but very pointedly—was actually a war. How is it that Americans somehow have difficulty coming to terms with this?
Guelzo: Well, I think for a number of reasons. One is that there has always been a sort of long-term hesitancy in American culture to look for military solutions to problems. After all, that’s why we had the American Revolution. The British were trying to impose a military solution to their political problems on what became the United States. There is that sense in us, over a long period of time, that this is what we were having a revolution against. What we wanted was not a country which is ruled by kings on horseback in uniforms; we wanted to have a peaceful nation, a peaceful republic, in which civilians, ordinary people, ran their own government and conducted their own affairs without molestation by death mobs and generals. So that’s long-term in American history and we have tended not to want to talk about ourselves terribly much as being a military people for fear that that somehow was a contradiction of what we are as a republic. But I think it has a special force today because so many people, especially in the upper echelons of our culture, have really lost faith with democracy and, for that reason, the idea of the American Civil War as a war fought on behalf of democracy, justifying and protecting democracy, seems to them out of kilter just on its own terms. Because if democracy has become something questionable in their minds, how much more questionable would a war be fought on democracy’s behalf?
Mohler: I wonder if there’s not something else that’s also operating here. For the better part of the last several decades, people have been pushing against the so-called great man theory of history, suggesting that the temptation of historians—certainly in previous centuries right up to the Victorian Era and even right up to World War II—they were tempted to give too much attention to specific individuals, suggesting that they then over-read and over-exaggerated their personal influence in deciding points in history. I wonder sometimes if there’s not also a hesitation against what may be called the great battle understanding of history, because many of the more revisionist historians of the Civil War—and, furthermore, of other wars as well, but speaking of the Civil War particularly—have pressed back against the idea that you can point to any specific moment as the great turning point in the war. But you rather unashamedly, unreluctantly do point to Gettysburg and say this is where the great hinge is to be found.
Guelzo: Well, part of this is rooted in the way that we think we should be writing history. What, after all, is the controlling factor in history? Is it the responsibility of individuals making decisions at particular moments, or are we talking about history as the product of faceless, long-term, long-duration causes? We have come to the point where we have so little confidence in the decision-making power of individuals that our preference has tended to be, as professional historians, to impute to these invisible causes the explanation of why things are the way they are. Battle or individual decision, this contradicts, this runs against the grain of the notion that long-term causality, not individual choice, has the real upper hand here. And you might say that for many people bringing history down to a particular event—making historical events hinge on particular decisions by particular people at a certain moment like an accordion being brought together—is something which offends the sensibilities of the way that many modern historians go about their business. And so when we talk about a battle and a war, that makes a number of people shrink back from wanting even to consider the subject. The idea that the wars or battles or decisions in battles are something which really have impact on decisions and really have impact on historical results, that is something which modern historians, many modern historians, really revolt against
Mohler: You know, another natural question that comes to mind—and we’re going to talk about the actual battle in just a moment—but in terms of its historical significance, how was that judged by the people who were looking at it from a very near distance: Lincoln, Lee, Meade, McClellan, others, and politicians in the United States, North and South, in the Confederacy in the South. How did they, in the immediate aftermath of Gettysburg, understand the scale of what happened there?
Guelzo: Well what’s extraordinary is how many people understood right in the wake of the battle how important an event it was that they had been through. Soldiers sit down to write letters and they’re already talking almost before the shooting has stopped entirely that they have been through the traumatic event, the cathartic event, of this war. There’s recognition that the battle has taken place on such a scale that one way or the other, this battle has been a decisive moment. Again, it’s not the moment that ends the war, but it is the war that reverses the trends, turns the dials around, and points in an entirely different direction. So people who are involved in the battle then had a very real sense of what was at stake and the tremendous impact of what was happening here at Gettysburg.
Mohler: You know, reading your book was for me a traumatic event, and I have read so much, not only of the Civil War, but of your writing. And in deference to what you’ve written before, in terms of books like Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, and the book we talked about last time, Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, you’ve covered a lot of this ground before. You’ve come back in a very focused way here to Gettysburg. Your book, I want to say, is, I think, the authoritative account of Gettysburg. I think it is a massive achievement for many reasons and I want to get to talk about those, but I also want to say that because of the skill you employ as a historian and the detail of the record that you leave, it is traumatic because you will not let us flinch from what this really was: a war and a battle with horrible carnage as well as long-term historical consequences. What was it like for you to write this book?
Guelzo: Well it reminds me a little bit of a story that Tchaikovsky liked to tell. A woman asked him on one occasion where he got his inspiration from, and he said, “Madam, when I walk into my studio at 8am in the morning, the muses had better be on time.” For me, the actual mechanics of writing is very straightforward, and I sit down and I do it. But the imagination that operates behind, it is an imagination that tries to put itself as much as possible in the situation and with the limitations of the people who were on the ground then. I am always asking myself: “What could they have seen? What, as they looked around them, would have been the first thing they encountered? What would the barrage on their senses of this experience have been like?” And I’m simply trying to reconstruct what the possibilities were for people who were living then and what they were passing through. I begin with a fundamental premise that war and combat is the most terrifying experience that human beings can inflict on each other. At the same time, I don’t want to deny the importance of this battle, or war itself; I also don’t want to gussy it up and romanticize it because it’s not a pleasant affair. It is a ferociously savage affair and to try to understand that and to understand the behavior of these people in the midst of the cauldron of battle. That is what does tax the imagination. I am simply trying to put that into words that will translate for people today so that they can understand that.
Mohler: Putting this new book, Gettysburg, alongside your previous books on the Civil War and the era, it became very interesting to me that you had to deal with something in this book you really didn’t have to deal with in any previous writing and that was time. Now I’m not speaking about time as in the calendar time. I’m speaking about time as in the time of day, because when you’re talking about a battle, you’re talking about things that matter minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour. One of the things you demonstrate is the fact that the idea of a uniform time wasn’t even on the minds of those who are actually living this battle and living its carnage. And so, from an historian’s perspective, you had to basically put things together in ways that those who were even living it at the time might not have understood in terms of the time. They set their own watches by their own estimation. Whatever time they heard in unison, it was by bells they couldn’t even hear. Talk about that a bit.
Guelzo: Sure. There’s no atomic clock anywhere and there’s not digital representation of a clock on your computer screen for everybody to synchronize their watches by. You’re making do with your estimate of what time of day it is. People are setting their watches almost to any standard that you could imagine, and the result, of course, even when they report what they think is the time of day, that can vary tremendously. That makes it very difficult when you’re trying to synchronize the events that are going on in the battle because a battle—it’s not just one event, it’s many events. In fact, you can almost say that given the stress and terror of combat, there were almost as many battles going on as there are participants in it. Now to try to impose some kind of order on that is: (a) inevitable; otherwise, why are you writing a history?, But (b) very, very difficult to do, and maybe sometimes you simply have to admit that as an historian, you are really not as omniscient as you would like people to think.
You have to acknowledge that people then were guessing; you are guessing too; this is my best guess. At every point I’ve tried to qualify the chronology of what is happening at Gettysburg with the acknowledgement that these people themselves were unsure of what they were doing and where they were doing it, and, therefore, I’m going to have to be unsure. In fact, everybody is going to have to be unsure if they’re really going to be honest about that. You know, simply because we’re unsure about something in the historical record does not mean that there’s not a responsibility not to try, so over and over again I’m trying to find clues in what people say that will give me a sense of, “Alright. This is happening at the same time as this other is happening.” And then we can start building a framework.
Mohler: It struck me as I was reading in your book alongside reading a very fine biography of Martin Luther that at no point in the entire volume on Luther did a time of day matter. But that’s quite different when dealing with a battle.
Guelzo: Of course, because, for one thing, sometimes events in a battle can hinge on when they occur. If they don’t occur at a certain moment, if they’re delayed by, let’s say, fifteen minutes—and in fact that happens over and over again at Gettysburg, when on the ground individual low-level commanders are making decisions that they have to make at that moment. They don’t know if something’s going to change in twenty minutes or a half-an-hour, but they have to make the decision now. They have to arrive at a certain point. If they get there ten minutes too late, then more is wrong than just being late. If they get their ten minutes too early, then they might have missed something else on the way. In a battle, timing is everything. We say that as a very trite phrase these days, but particularly in combat, timing really is the whole story.
Mohler: And, yet, there is also a major theme in your book, always there in the background, and that is how the war might have been different but for missing information, not only in terms of military intelligence, but just making information. It’s a massive part of the story you tell.
Guelzo: Well I like, on the one hand, to try to get people to understand, what all the possibilities were at a given moment; I do not like to do what is sometimes called, “What if? history.” What if this had been different? What if that had been different? I think that that in a way is an attempt by human beings to second guess the will of God and you don’t get very far trying to do that. But, on the other hand, I think it’s also useful for people to realize that someone standing at a particular place on the first of July, 1863, had a range of possible outcomes in front of them, none of which they could be sure were going to occur in quite the way they would expect. What I want people to understand is what it was like to experience that uncertainty; that there were any of a number of possible outcomes, and think about the possibilities, think about the results that might have obtained if one or more of these other possibilities had in fact really developed. What, for instance, might have happened if elements of the army of the Potomac had not made it to Gettysburg in sufficient time to prevent the First and the Eleventh Corps of the army of the Potomac from being destroyed at Gettysburg? You go on through these things and you’re not so much trying to create alternative futures for people, but you are trying to get people to think of what futures might have looked like if certain decisions had not been made. That underscores the importance of the decision that does get made.
[Commentary break begins]
Mohler: So often when we look at a great historical occurrence, one of those monumental moments in history, such as the Battle of Gettysburg, our intention and instinct is to get right into the battle. But one of the great strengths of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo is that he tells us so much that comes before the battle and sets-up the issue of the historical consequence and meaning of the battle, precisely because he does put it in a context. This doesn’t just happen. This isn’t, in the biggest sense, inevitable; and yet it seems that when the battle takes place, it is fully understandable in terms of what came before. Political background, economic background, as well as the military factors, all of these play a part, and without understanding all these together, we simply end up with this massive military conflagration and conflict with no obvious understanding of why such a battle of such consequence would happen then and there.
[Commentary break ends]
Mohler: When looking at the Battle of Gettysburg, there are so many stories that come into an intersection point, and there are also so many confluences that bring the battle to a reality. Professor Guelzo, set up the political reality. Before we get to the military action on the ground, what was the political reality that made Gettysburg so important even before the armies arrived?
Guelzo: Politically for Abraham Lincoln and the Union, 1863 is a bad year at its beginning. The Union armies have been repeatedly defeated. The democratic opposition has gotten its second wind. It is opposed not only to Lincoln as a wartime leader, but it’s also opposed to Lincoln as the president who has issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Between January 1, 1863, and July 1, 1863, that political opposition becomes more and more ominous. That’s especially true in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania because Ohio and Pennsylvania are going to elect governors in the fall of 1863. The previous year, New York and New Jersey had both elected anti-Lincoln democratic governors, people who denounced the Emancipation Proclamation. If New Jersey and New York get joined by Ohio and Pennsylvania in electing anti-war democratic governors, then those four states alone could come together and force Lincoln either to open negotiations with the Confederates to end the war or to resign his office. A lot is going to ride on what happens militarily in the summer of 1863, because if we get to the fall and those gubernatorial elections go against Lincoln, the Lincoln administration is going to be in very, very deep trouble
Mohler: And so would be the army of the Potomac, because I think, in ways that most Americans today do not understand, the governors of those states—and, by the way, those four states provided the plurality if not the majority of all the soldiers serving in the army of the Potomac—they could basically have forced Lincoln quite literally to have changed course.
Guelzo: Because they would have ordered the withdrawal of their volunteer regiments back to their states in that case—and they could do that. Now that might be contested; there might be a great deal of controversy and confrontation over it. But the controversy and the confrontation would be expensive just on their own terms.
Mohler: Well—if not disastrous for Lincoln and his administration and his prospects for re-election. Well, that was the setting politically in the North, but what about the setting politically in the South? It’s a rather significant part of the story as well.
Guelzo: Well this is true because the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, is himself on the edge of anxiety. The Confederacy has experienced a number of serious reversals. It is bottled up in a blockade by the federal navy and something is going to have to give, because Davis knows, and, even better than Davis, Robert E. Lee knows that the Confederacy does not have the resources to go in a long-term fight with the North. They don’t have, in other words, the kind of bulk to carry them through a fifteen-round, heavy-weight bout with the North. The Confederacy has got to strike, score a knock down in the early rounds, or else it simply won’t last. And this is what Robert E. Lee presents to Jefferson Davis as his plan in 1863: take the war North, cross the Potomac, cross into Maryland, into Pennsylvania, and either have a fine summer in 1863, ripping the guts out of Pennsylvania, or meet the army at the Potomac in open battle and defeat it. Either of those results will so depress northern political morale that the North will be compelled to come to the negotiating table. The difficulty for Lee is he has to persuade Jefferson Davis of this, and Davis is beset by voices from the western part of the Confederacy demanding that Davis send troops from the east, from Lee’s army, to succor the Confederacy in the west, where, along the Mississippi River, the Confederacy’s last major citadel, Vicksburg, is on the edge: it’s under siege by Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army. So the decision to send Lee into Pennsylvania, that is also a politically-inspired as well as a military decision.
Mohler: Looking on the scene of the Battle of Gettysburg militarily, you have to believe, having walked it as I have—and you live it as you are at Gettysburg College right there—you have to believe that it seems almost unimaginable that something with the significance in military terms as Gettysburg could actually have happened there. It defies the imagination. I’ve been at Waterloo; I’ve been at so many of the great battlefields in Europe; but to me, it’s all the more striking to be in that pastoral scene in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and imagine the military significance of that site.
Guelzo: Well, armies have an unpleasant way of taking perfectly peaceful and pleasant landscapes and turning them into carnage. What could one day, or even one morning, be a perfectly pastoral scene, by the afternoon could be littered, first of all, with corpses; secondly, with cast-off equipment, with dead animals, with bits and pieces of human remains that have been blown apart by explosives. It would not take very long for that to happen. A couple of hours work on an afternoon in an open field would provide precisely those kinds of hideous adornment and, thus, convert what would otherwise be a scene of peace into a scene that would have the ordinary human being reaching for the sick sack as fast as they could.
Mohler: Speaking of the military significance of Gettysburg, can you just set up the story and tell us why in that scene, at this particular time a 150 years ago, so much happened that set the course of history as we know it for this country today?
Guelzo: Well Lee’s overall aim in invading Pennsylvania was to lure the Union Army after him in pursuit, and, as the Union Army strung itself out on the roads in that pursuit, Lee would then take the opportunity to turn and ambush the heads of the pursuing Union troops. He would wait to see the lead units of the Army of the Potomac get so disconnected from the rest of the army that they would be vulnerable to a strike by his own army of Northern Virginia. And this in fact is the way it plays out. Lee arcs widely up into Pennsylvania, up the Cumberland Valley toward Harrisburg; he’s dangling bait. And the Army of the Potomac, now under the command of George Meade, takes that bait and chases Lee, disorganizes himself, does exactly what Lee wanted them to do. And Lee himself then turns, moves down to Gettysburg where he predicted there would probably be a battle, and proceeds to confront the Union Army in a way where he can pick off pieces of the Union Army, defeat them in detail, and, thus, destroy the Army of the Potomac piece-by-piece.
That’s what sets the stage for Gettysburg. There was only one miscalculation in it: he thought he was going to be able to move into Gettysburg unopposed. He thought he was ahead of the Union Army’s schedule; he wasn’t. He was about 24-hours off. By the time the Confederate Army gets to Gettysburg, already, advance elements of the Army of the Potomac have established themselves there. There’s not many of them, and Lee spends the first day of the battle pushing them through the town of Gettysburg and below the town to a large plateau called Cemetery Hill. But this is more or less the way Lee had expected things would unfold. What he had not expected was how close the rest of the Army of the Potomac was to Gettysburg, and overnight another three infantry corps of the Army of the Potomac—there are seven all told in the army—another three of those corps come up to Gettysburg to reinforce the two that were already there. When the sun comes up on July 2nd, Lee’s got a much more difficult proposition in front of him than he had the day before.
Mohler: And how did he respond to that, because that appears to me to be the second great transitional moment in this battle. Lee, understanding himself to be in a battle that he had not anticipated, has to respond. How did he respond and what were the consequences?
Guelzo: His conclusion is that, first of all, he had better not break off this battle. After all, the first day of the battle had been tremendously successful; what would it do to the morale of his army if, after a successful fight on July 1st, he suddenly disengages from the enemy? He also was reckoning on the fact that the Army of the Potomac, while it might be there maybe in larger numbers than he’d planned, still was not in good condition to resist him. So he decides to do a duplicate of what he had done two months previously at the Battle of Chancellorsville and launch a big loping flank attack, which he puts into the hands of his old war-horse, James Longstreet. And Longstreet takes over command of this enormous attack on the Union flank. It comes within an ace of succeeding. Longstreet’s flank attack successfully puts out of action two entire Union infantry corps, destroys a division of another corps, and—really you could almost measure it in yards how close they came to completely breaking through the Union position and forcing the Union Army to retreat. That in turn sets up Lee’s decision on July 3rd to make one last big attack, on the theory that the Army of the Potomac is now clearly on the ropes—wade in and launch George Pickett’s division as the final blow that’s going to stretch the Army of the Potomac out on the camps. That, of course, is what becomes Pickett’s Charge.
Mohler: And that ends not with the breaking out of the battle as Lee had hoped, but with a disaster from which he and his army simply could not recover, and, beyond that, from which his army never recovered.
Guelzo: He fully expected Pickett’s Charge was going to punch its way through the last soggy cardboard of the Army of the Potomac, and that was going to be the end of the battle, and maybe even the end of the war. On July 2nd, it’s surprising how many Confederate officers really believed what they were looking at was the end of the war, a triumph for the Confederacy. But it doesn’t happen and people ever since then have asked the question: Well, why didn’t it happen? It resulted after the battle in a tremendous amount of finger-pointing among the Confederates as people tried to identify who was responsible for the failure of Pickett’s Charge and the failure at Gettysburg. I think, though, in the long run the real burden of responsibility for what happened at Pickett’s Charge is not about what the Confederates didn’t do, it’s about what the Union soldiers did do; because they held the center of their line—they held it right to the breaking point. They fought with a fury that they had scarcely ever manifested before in the previous two years of the Civil War, and it’s really the Union soldiers, the ordinary men who fought there by the angle, by the cops of trees on Cemetery Ridge—it’s they who are the undoing of Robert E. Lee’s great plan.
Mohler: And inevitably when we have a conversation like this, or you write a book about a battle such as this, generals play a huge role. And, of course, many of the more revisionist arguments and continuing debates about Gettysburg focus on the generals. I’m not going to ask you to do that in particular, but I do want you to speak to what I think what will surprise many Americans, especially in the contemporary time. And that is this: these generals were not just military figures, they were political figures. To a degree that is unimaginable in terms of the modern American military, they were playing a political role, and they meant to play a political role. They had political allegiances, and they meant for their role to have political consequences. I think that’s very difficult for most of us now to understand.
Guelzo: Well, bear in mind, first of all, that the American Civil War is a very political war, and I mean domestic politics. Civil wars have a very nasty way of being like that, and the American Civil War was no exception. Even within the Union Army there were serious political divisions over what the Union Army should be fighting for. And this obtained at the highest levels of the army as well, so that in 1862, you had as a commander of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan. Well here was a man, a very talented military leader, but at the same time also one whose political allegiance pointed 180 degrees away from the Lincoln administration. And McClellan was not in the slightest bit shy about advertising that. He was, in fact, perfectly willing to work against the Lincoln administration in order to obtain an outcome from the war that he wanted. This has not changed all that much by 1863. McClellan is gone, but in his place in command of the Army of the Potomac there is a McClellanized Democrat, and that is George Gordon Meade. And George Gordon Meade, while he doesn’t wear his politics as plainly on his sleeve as George McClellan did, certainly has political opinions, and a number of those political opinions will affect military decisions that he makes at Gettysburg.
The same, curiously enough, is also true in the Confederate Army. Although, in the Confederate Army, the issue is really who is more energetic in espousing secession. There is a more secessionist-than-thou syndrome within the army of Northern Virginia in which the most radical secessionist looked down their noses suspiciously at those who are held to be not as loyal to the secessionist cause, especially those from Georgia and North Carolina. North Carolina, after all, being the last Southern state to join the Confederacy, there’s a real sense of suspicion that these North Carolinians and these Georgians really aren’t politically reliable. And that also affects military decision-making; and you see it erupt at the Battle of Gettysburg as well. So both sides have political baggage that they’re carrying around with them that today we would think would be entirely and hopelessly out of place. We look at the military today and we say, “Well, the military must always be subordinate to the civilian authority, and the military is in business solely to address military questions, not politically ones. That wasn’t true in the American Civil War; and it showed at Gettysburg.
Mohler: In terms of the carnage of this battle, in several pages in your book, you document the scale but also the difficulty of actually coming up with authoritative numbers. In the early parts of the battle, Lee reported 2,592 killed, 12,700 wounded, and 4,000-plus captured or missing. That amounts to 20,000-plus casualties. On the Union side, Meade reported 2,834 killed, 13,700 wounded, and 6,643 missing. Eventually mathematicians and historians have come up with a figure that puts the Union dead at more than 4,000. What we’re talking about here is mass carnage, far beyond, I think, the imagination of most Americans looking back at this battle.
Guelzo: You know, after a while the numbers get to be so meaningless. You try to fumble for a way of translating it into an experiential sort of thing. Try thinking of it in these terms: If you have—as Professor Michael Jacobs of Pennsylvania College estimated—if you have approximately 9,000 dead in these fields around Gettysburg from three days of fighting; it’s July; draw the conclusions from that. The first thing you’re going to notice is how absolutely horrible everything smells. We’re only talking human remains. That’s not even touching the remains of horses and mules killed in this battle. I mean, the animal casualties are pretty substantial as well. So just think of it in those terms. Then also think of the offense this offers just to the eye—of farmers who have to come back to their farms and their farmhouses to find them littered with the detritus of the dead and the dying. And then think about the numbers as representing percentages.
If you try to translate the losses of these armies in a rough sense, each army lost about a third of its strength. That’s one out of every three people who entered this battle. Try thinking of your high school or college graduating class, and just take one out of every three of them and vaporize them. Then you start to get a sense of the impact of this loss. Or translate it into something like how many World Trade Centers would this equal; how many sinkings of the Titanic; how many Pearl Harbors—until you make the numbers add up, and then translate the visceral gut feeling from those experiences, translate that into what that must have meant at Gettysburg, not only for the soldiers in the armies, but also think of how this impacted all the families of those who were killed or wounded or captured at Gettysburg. And at that point, you suddenly begin to feel the rawness of the destruction of this battle.
Mohler: Mr. Guelzo, we’re speaking within days of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. To what extent, as an historian, would you conjecture that we would have the same conversation we’re having now about the battle if not for Lincoln’s even more memorable address?
Guelzo: Abraham Lincoln comes to Gettysburg with this sense that Gettysburg is an extremely important event. As early as the first news that came along the wires to him in July, he was already pointing his finger at Gettysburg as the central event of the war. And one thing which helped him do it was the fact that the news of Gettysburg came on the fourth of July. The battle runs July 1, 2, and 3. People aren’t really sure that it’s over until the fourth, and that’s when Lincoln gets his first inklings of what the outcome of the battle is. For him, the idea that it happens on Independence Day, the Fourth of July—he is thinking back in 1776, the fourth of July meant Declaration of Independence. It meant all men are created equal. Now, on the fourth of July, 1863, this great battle has been fought to preserve that. And he drew this bright line from the very foundation principles of the American republic to the Battle of Gettysburg. He brought that with him in November of 1863 when he came to deliver the dedication remarks for the creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. And he started off with exactly that in view when he delivered what today we call the Gettysburg Address. He draws this bright line between fourscore and seven years ago, the Declaration of Independence, and this great battlefield of this great war where he says we’re testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We’re testing here whether democracies do or do not have this centrifugal force, which is always going to send them spinning off into self-destruction. And the Civil War is going to prove to us whether in fact democracies are stable. What he sees at Gettysburg as he looks out over the semi-circular rows of the 3,500 or so dead who are buried there—and not all of them in fact are actually buried by the time that Lincoln gets there; the complete reburials won’t be finished until March of 1864—what he sees is in the sacrifices of those soldiers a dedication to the principles of the American democracy that transcends all the skeptics. And he urges his hearers, not only there on the cemetery, but I think really for anybody who would read his words afterwards, he urges them to take an increased measure of the same devotion those soldiers had manifested, take it into themselves and take it forward, because if they do that, then there can be a new birth of freedom—literally—his using that phrase to say, in a sense, that the American democracy can be born again, that it can be spiritually reborn in its dedication to that fundamental principle of all men are created equal. And that being so, we can go forward to the point of government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth. For him, Gettysburg is almost a religious experience. It’s almost like a revival meeting where citizens come together and experience being born again in the new religion of American democracy. And, as far as Lincoln is concerned, Gettysburg is the ultimate symbol of that because of its proximity to Independence Day, the Fourth of July.
Mohler: Mr. Guelzo, when we come to a conclusion here, I want to ask you to go to that address and to this very important moment in history. And one of the issues that comes to my mind is that even children raised in the South, in what were the former states of the Confederacy, look to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with an enormous amount of American pride and with a sense that this is a part of our national creed. To what extent was Lincoln’s address a transition not to the Union as it must go forward, just looking at the war, but to the nation that would one day, he hoped and I think believed, would emerge on the other side of this horrible cataclysm?
Guelzo: Lincoln always hoped and believed that the Confederates would at some point wake up and realize that what they were doing—this rebellion on behalf of slavery—was a contradiction of everything that they themselves professed as Americans. That, in fact, the Confederacy had taken a wrong turn. His hope, his confidence was that individual Southerners were really loyal to those principles of the American democracy, but they had been somehow deluded by the slave power into defecting from them. And there’s a way in which the Gettysburg Address throws out a lifeline to them. It says, “Look, we’re proving that democracy works, not only in the fact of all the hostile critics in Europe, among all the dictators and emperors and despots, we’re also proving it to you as well: that the democracy that your fathers fought to create in 1776 is the one that you need to come home to as well. There is something there that even Southerners needed to be reminded of: that even they as Americans were Americans because the fundamental principle of the Declaration of Independence was about the equality of all men, an equality which slavery was the most fundamental contradiction of.
So it is—once again to return to the image of the revival preacher—he is calling sinners to repentance—sinners sometimes in the North who have felt fainthearted; sinners in other nations with epaulettes and swords and empires—he’s calling them to repentance because he’s going to show to them the importance of the principle of democracy. But he’s also calling Americans in the South back to their original creed as well so that we all will affirm the government of the people by the people and for the people can go forward. In that respect, the Gettysburg Address is a challenge, which is given not just to the people standing there in the cemetery, not just to people in the North, but, in fact, it’s to every generation of Americans, to look at Gettysburg, to look at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, and even though we’re 150 years removed from those events, still to take that renewed sense of devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. I think that’s why Gettysburg remains such a special place on the American landscape and why the Gettysburg Address remains such a stupendously important piece of American political and literary expression.
Mohler: Professor Guelzo, it’s wonderful to speak with you again. Thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public.
Guelzo: Dr. Mohler, thank you.
Mohler: I really enjoyed that conversation with Allen Guelzo. And I appreciate very much his pushing back against the temptation of so many people, especially in terms of the popular literature, to engage in what are called counter-factuals, or counter-factual history, history as it might have been. What would have happened if something else had happened than what did? Professor Guelzo is exactly right to press against that, and, at the same time, to insist that the answer to many of these questions are actually imbedded, not in what didn’t happen, but what did. And when you look at what actually happened at Gettysburg, the story is so much more massive and consequential than most of us have in our historical memory. When you’re looking at Gettysburg, you’re looking at one of the most important events in the history of America as a nation, not only of North America as a continent, but of America as a nation.
Very important questions were answered there that everyone knew were being asked: Are we one nation? Will this war turn out in the direction of the democracy as was intended by the founders? Or would we have two different nations evolving out of the American Revolution rather than one: one holding to a far more radical understanding of democracy, believing that that more radical vision is what was absolutely necessary for human liberty and human flourishing, and the other believing that a return to a more aristocratic and stable, even European understanding of the political order was what was necessary to protect certain institutions vital to human flourishing? We forget that the Civil War was not only a war, it was also an argument and, to some degree, an argument that long preceded the Civil War—indeed, preceding even the Revolutionary War—and an argument that continues to this very day.
One of the great strengths of Allen Guelzo’s book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, is that he doesn’t flinch from telling us the story. That’s why I wanted to talk to him about why writing a history about a battle, or, for that matter, almost any version of military history, is often looked down upon by the academy, the gild of historians—because they’re afraid, or at least they say they should be and we should be, of finding too much consequence in these events or of having an almost pornographic interest in them, as if human beings looking at such a thing must find themselves somehow fascinated by what should not fascinate us. That can certainly happen, and from a Christian perspective, we have to recognize that a good deal of what is called military history is in some ways a celebration of what should not be celebrated. On the other hand, to ignore this kind of history, and, in particular, the history as accomplished by Allen Guelzo in this book, is to rob us of the understanding of the moral consequence of human action and of the incredible cost paid, the military determination of what human beings could not determine by any other means. War in this sense is an epic failure, and the Civil War stands as the greatest failure in terms of America. And, yet, without it, we would not be the nation we are today. It’s hard at this remove of 150 years from this battle to come back and imagine just how much consequence really resides then and there on this battlefield and in this battle.
You cannot tell the story of Gettysburg without speaking of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. But before getting to the address, Allen Guelzo helps us to understand how Gettysburg as an event factored into Abraham Lincoln’s thinking. In this sense, he offers what previous historians of the battle, and even of the Civil War, have not adequately given us in terms of historical understanding. In his book he comes to this point.
And then came Gettysburg. It was not merely that Gettysburg finally delivered a victory, or that it administered a bloody reverse to Southern fortunes at the point and in the place where they might otherwise have scored their greatest triumph, or that it had come at such a stupendous cost in lives. It was that the monumental scale of that blood-letting was its own refutation to the old lie that a democracy innervates the virtue of its people to the point where they are unwilling to do more than look to their own personal self-interest.
You know, I think most modern readers looking at that would believe that that refers only to the determination of the North and to the understanding of those who were leading the war and, to a lesser but generalized extent, those who were fighting it. But I think a closer reading of this text also makes clear that that same kind of moral emphasis and understanding was very much on the part of the Southerners who were involved in this on the side of the Confederacy. All understood that this was a great moral conflict, that morality, indeed, theology, stood at the very center of what was being debated, not so much in words in this case, but, the words having failed, with bullets and bayonets.
On the other side of this, it should amaze us all to the point of great thanksgiving and gratitude when we consider the fact that Americans, North and South, living 150 years after this battle, all look to that short two-and-a-half minute address given by President Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the National Cemetery there in Gettysburg as a point of our national self-understanding, of our national identity, of our understanding not only of what America now is but what America always was to be. One of the greatest achievements of America is simply in surviving this cataclysmic Civil War and coming out on the other side of it one nation—and now in the year 2013, a nation that no longer thinks in the same terms as it did in the 1860s, but is still that same nation. In that sense it was a horrible learning experience. A learning experience drenched in so much blood that today it is still morally almost unfathomable, but a conflict that was not for naught. In other words, it played a very important role in the making of America as a nation and, furthermore, as a witness to nations far beyond, as Lincoln understood, of what America was about, as a beacon of liberty and freedom. The battle held America to its own moral convictions, as did the war. And, at the end of the war, those convictions, though badly bruised, were recaptured and reaffirmed once again by a nation bloodied, but still a nation.
In his book, Allen Guelzo in that closing chapter about the Gettysburg Address doesn’t refer to Abraham Lincoln by name, instead, referring to him as “The Tall Man.” That may be a literary device in order to point out that at this point Abraham Lincoln is remembered not just as the human being that he was, not just as the president of the United States, but as a moral figure whose moral vision was never more clearly articulated than in the Gettysburg Address. But Allen Guelzo had a very personal interest in that address, and it doesn’t come out so much in the book as in an article he published in June of 2013 with the Fourth of July on the horizon, published in The Wall Street Journal. In that article, he wrote this:
Among my great-grandfather’s papers, carefully set down in his small, gnarled handwriting, is a copy of the Gettysburg Address. When Lincoln delivered that speech, my great-grandfather was ten years old and living in Sweden, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. That inconvenient birth exposed him to the haphazardness of privilege. For although he was raised, petted, and groomed by his father’s family, he soon understood that he would never have any real standing in that family or their world. Over their protest, he left Sweden in his twenties, arriving penniless in New York in 1879, but still in possession of the American president’s word: the promise of a new nation, founded on the proposition that all men are created equal.
You know, to a considerable extent that testimony might give an indication as to why Allen Guelzo would commit so much of his life to writing such a comprehensive history of the Battle of Gettysburg. But, at the same time, it also reminds us of why he had to write it and why we need to read it, because that young boy’s story, the great-grandfather of Allen Guelzo, is to some extent every American’s story and it explains why we’re having a conversation we just had today 150 years after this epic battle was fought.
Thanks again to my guest, Professor Allen Guelzo, for thinking with me today. Before I close, I want to invite you to join us on the campus of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for the Resolute Collegiate Conference. It’s for college students. It’s going to be held February 14-15, 2014. I’ll be joined by Kevin DeYoung, and we’ll be talking about how to get this generation of Christians ready for the challenges that lie ahead. For more information, go to [events/sbts.edu].
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.