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On July 3, 1863 – 150 years ago today - General Robert E. Lee ordered 12,500 Confederate troops to attack the center of the Union Army line at the Battle of Gettysburg. The assault was a disaster and the ill-conceived attack ensured a Union victory. A man of strong character, Lee accepted total responsibility for the defeat. Had the battle gone differently, the map of the United States might look much different today.
But it was not his first defeat. In the war’s opening stages, Lee was dispatched to mountainous western Virginia, where he failed miserably attempting to regain lost territory along the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike. His planned night attack up the steep slopes of Cheat Mountain, strewn with fallen spruce trees, was doomed to failure. Lee was recalled to Richmond, under somewhat of a cloud. Jefferson Davis remained confident in Lee, who would go on to defeat the United States Army several times during the first two years of the war, with few exceptions.
The U.S. military has suffered defeats in its history, including Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Peninsula and Kasserine Pass in WWII, but it really took other Americans to nearly bring the U.S. Army to it knees.
The Civil War is the bloodiest war in American history. 620,000 Americans lost their lives as brother fought against brother. Many European military observers were shocked by the carnage. Set-piece maneuver warfare had evolved in Europe, in which casualties were often limited.
Weapons technology had greatly improved by the time of the Civil War, but tactics had not caught up. Still using strategies of the age of musketry, formations of men assaulted together and fired together, a maneuver more similar to the Greek phalanx than modern infantry tactics. The much improved accuracy of rifled muskets and rifled artillery gave a much stronger advantage to defenders.
Still, in places such as Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, the men walked forward. They walked forward into the virtual certainty of death or dismemberment. They stepped forward over the bodies of those who had assaulted and failed, before them. They walked forward into the smoke and flames and blood and hell that no man should have to endure.
I have never ceased to be astounded by the courage of these men. What did they believe in so strongly or fear so much that they would walk into the face of certain death? Surely, many things motivate a soldier in combat. There is pride in the unit and camaraderie, that inspires soldiers to do their part for their buddies fighting next to them.
But, as chronicled by innumerable letters home from Civil War soldiers on both sides, there were strongly-held beliefs in what they were fighting for. Union troops were motivated by a desire to preserve the United States of America and many were motivated by what they considered a God-given mission to end the abomination of slavery. Confederate troops were likewise motivated by a desire to obtain independence and form a new nation.
It saddens me that so many thousands of Americans died fighting to destroy the United States of America. But I cannot judge the Confederacy. If I had been a citizen of the South, I might have been marching in a ragged, butternut uniform. I prefer to think I would be an abolitionist. But who knows?
The sad fact is - this country is still divided. Liberals versus conservatives, Democrats versus Republicans, city people versus country folk, white versus brown versus black – will it ever change? People who lived through WWII invariably tell me that the war brought the country together. What does it say about us if war is the only thing that can unite us?
Can we not strive harder to understand each other? Will we ever gain the strength to shed our prejudices? Is there sufficient will to strengthen our nation by joining arms and marching together, as soldiers march together in battle? Shall these states remain united? Change must start from within. If each and every one of us try a little bit harder, we can do it. Let us resolve this Independence Day to fight together - not against each other - and build a stronger America.