I met my fourth George Gordon Meade yesterday.
I know Andy Waskie, of course, the founder and president of the General Meade Society of Philadelphia. Waskie often portrays Meade at talks and living history events. He was out of the country during the 2013 anniversary commemorations, so Jerry McCormick—who usually portrays Gen. Andrew Humphreys—stood in for him as Meade at Gettysburg with the Confederation of Union Generals. I talked to Bob Creed at a Gettysburg reenactment when I was working on Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. And today I met Steve Weatherbee, who portrays Meade for the Civil War Heritage Foundation. That doesn’t come close to matching the profusion of Robert E. Lees you will find at Civil War events, but it’s a beginning.
I talked with Weatherbee while we waited for advancing Confederates at the stone wall at Gettysburg’s Bloody Angle. The Angle was considerably less bloody today, and the crowd gathered here 152 years after the Union soldiers along this line repulsed Lee’s attack—Pickett’s Charge—was considerably smaller than it had been in 2013, when some 47,000 people showed up for the 150th anniversary.
Over the past couple days I had watched several of the Gettysburg Battlewalks on the Pennsylvania Cable Network, which made me realize I must get down to Gettysburg myself on July 3. So I packed a lunch and set out. It was a fine, pleasant day for a visit, with a light cloud cover blocking the July sun, and a cool breeze blowing through. My goal was to take the 10:00 walk, which covered Winfield Scott Hancock at Gettysburg. A large crowd gathered at the white Abraham Brian farm buildings. As we waited, I overhead some people talking favorably about George Meade. I pointed out the Meade Society cap I was wearing, and we agreed that the general had never really received his due.
Park ranger Matt Atkinson led the Hancock walk, and he added a distinctive Southern flavor to it. At the start, he admitted that he didn’t often do Union-themed talks, and that he had grown up in the South looking up to Confederate heroes as a boy. Still, he told us that Hancock was one of his favorite generals, and that he was “a natural-born leader.” From the Brian buildings, we moved south down Cemetery Ridge. We made a stop at the monument that marks the spot where Confederate General Lewis Armistead fell on July 3 1863. Armistead and Hancock had been friends before the war—a friendship portrayed as a full-blown bromance in the book Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg. We finished across the road from the monument that marks the spot where Hancock fell, taken down by a bullet that went through the pommel of his saddle and into his thigh. Atkinson provided a fairly graphic account of Hancock’s wound and the various attempts to remove the musket ball. Maybe that’s what led to our only casualty of the morning, when a woman went faint and had to be helped to the ground (and later to an air conditioned park vehicle).
After the talk, I whiled away some time reading the new book by Jim Hessler and Wayne Motts, Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg: A Guide to the Most Famous Attack in American History. My wife and I had attended the book launch event the previous Sunday at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, where Wayne serves as CEO. Jim and Wayne both spoke, and the two of them, plus cartographer Steven Stanley, signed copies of the book afterwards. Wayne had also put out a collection of artifacts related to Pickett’s Charge, including the belt worn by Alonzo Cushing, the Union artillerist who had been cut down at his guns as Armistead approached them. Cushing was just recently awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
Back at Gettysburg, I walked over to the Angle to wait for the Confederates with Weatherbee and other reenactors. I spotted only one Robert E. Lee, but two Armisteads.
It seemed to me that the day felt politically charged in the wake of the debate over the Confederate flag sparked by the church shootings in Charleston. (“Keep flying it,” I heard one woman remark to a Confederate reenactor as he passed her with a Rebel flag.) I’ve written about the flag issue elsewhere. I have no problems with Confederate flags in a historical context. I do have issues with it in a political context, whether it’s being flown at a statehouse or in the back of a pickup truck.
Anyone who has read Searching for George Gordon Meade knows that I have little patience for Lost Cause rhetoric. Here’s one thing I wrote:
During the war and in the years since, Lee has been lionized. Entire bookshelves groan beneath the weight of the volumes dedicated to him. He has come to symbolize a glorious “lost cause,” a world of “cavaliers and cotton fields,” as Gone with the Wind put it. In this view of the Civil War, the noble, freedom-loving South fought a valiant but doomed battle against the institutionalized and bureaucratic forces of the North. The Southern generals, men like Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, tend to be remembered as glamorous and noble warriors. The generals in the North come across more like CEOs of major corporations, faceless and colorless. Except perhaps for Ulysses S. Grant, who gained a reputation as a “butcher” willing to exchange his soldiers’ lives for victory. Who wants to cheer for those guys, especially today, when public distrust of the federal government seems to have reached an all-time high? No, it’s much cooler to cheer for the rebels.
Yet there’s one thing that tarnishes this glamorous view of the rebellious South, an elephant in the room that many try to ignore. And that is slavery. The South fought to preserve a culture that rested on a foundation of human bondage. Don’t take it from me–take it from the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens. In a famous speech he made in March 1861, less than a month before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War, Stephens declared that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Furthermore, he added, the foundation of the Confederate government—its very cornerstone, in fact—“rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Claiming that slavery did not cause the Civil War is like clearing the iceberg of any responsibility for sinking the Titanic. That’s why I find it galling to see the Sons of Confederate Veterans contend that the South’s “motivating factor” for war was “the preservation of liberty and freedom.” Except, of course, for the approximately four million people of African descent whom the slave-holding states kept in bondage. It’s a stain that will forever sully the story of the Confederate States of America. There’s no escaping it.
The recent discussions have dragged the unsavory side of Confederate banners into the light, which is a good thing. People forget that South Carolina started flying the stars and bars over its state capitol in 1962, not to salute the courage of Confederate soldiers, but to symbolize its resistance to civil rights. “Heritage not hate,” is what flag supporters tell us the banners symbolize. But that’s not quite right. “Heritage AND hate,” would be a more accurate motto.
So I sensed that subtext percolating beneath the day’s events at Gettysburg. The present has a way of forcing its way into these things, photo bombing history.
After watching Union and Confederate reenactors grasp hands across the stone wall, I headed up to the Meade statue for the start of a short “real time” talk about Alexander Webb and the Philadelphia Brigade, led by ranger Emma Murphy. By the walk’s end we were down at the Copse of Trees by the monument to the 69th Pennsylvania. She read us excerpts from Lt. Frank Haskell’s account of the battle and the final repulse of the Confederates on July 3, 1863. “The line springs,” Haskell had written; “the crest of the solid ground, with a great roar, heaves forward its maddened load,–men, arms, smoke, fire, a fighting mass; it rolls to the wall; flash meets flash; the wall is crossed; a moment ensues of thrusts, yells, blows, shots, an undistinguished conflict, followed by a shout universal, that makes the welkin ring again; and the last and bloodiest fight of the great battle of Gettysburg is ended and won.”
As far as I’m concerned, the right side won at Gettysburg. But as all the debate about the Confederate flag has shown us, in some people are still fighting the Civil War.