I just finished watching Gettysburg the other day, and it was both inspiring and sobering.
It’s one of the Civil War battles that I think we hear the most about superficially, but I realized in watching the movie that I really didn’t know any of the details of what happened over the course of those few days and why. The casualties on both sides totaled 53,000 men, making it the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil. But that number is even more sobering when you realize that if General Lee had actually paid attention to good strategy, the battle would never have happened at all. The Confederate Army was in a perfect position to turn and head towards Washington D.C., which would have forced the Union Army to follow, and would have given the Confederates time to find good, high ground to dig into and meet the Union forces from a stronger position. Instead, Lee decided that since they had already had a run-in with the Union forces at Gettysburg, it would be “cowardly” and “weaken the morale” of his men to turn and leave at that point. There was more “glory” and “honor” to be found in fighting from a weaker, downhill position…and on top of that, refusing to listen to the advice of his other generals (especially James Longstreet) to attack the sides and flanks of the Union forces, but instead sending 15,000 men directly up a wide, open slope against the center of the Union lines, where they could be slaughtered en masse by Union artillery fire.
There was a great deal of courage and bravery as well, and some very good leadership and decisions by some of the Union officers, but the staggering loss of life, and the sickening lack of necessity for it, is the thing that has really stuck with me. Writing a story about a war as I am, it’s an interesting topic, and I’m glad that I watched the movie. It helps to keep me aware, as a writer, about how the ideas and beliefs of leaders in a conflict have direct, life-or-death consequences for the people who must follow their orders. 53,000 is not just a number – it means that 53,000 individual, living, breathing human beings died at Gettysburg. I think that, in writing about war, that is the sort of thing that it is very good to keep in mind.
To go back to the movie itself, it is long (a bit more than 4 hours), but it is well done and I would definitely recommend it. A lot of Civil War reenactors were brought in for the battle scenes, which seemed realistic to me, and I liked the acting of all the major characters as well; one gets a good sense of their personalities. It is based on The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which is a fictional but (as I understand it) historically accurate account of the Battle of Gettysburg.
General Lee’s rationale for choosing to fight from that position is very interesting. There’s an important philosophical point here. The context of this battle was the Civil War, in which the motivations of The South can be accurately summed up by their willingness to fight and die to maintain the institution of slavery. While The South offered many justifications for slavery, a common thread among them, I think, is the notion that man is not an end in himself, and that his proper role in life is to serve God or some superior collective. An egoist, individualist morality would have been utterly incompatible with the institution of slavery. The operating standard of good we observe in The South is beyond the self.
In this specific instance, we see that General Lee held a view of morale consistent with The South’s moral views. In Lee’s view, honor derives not from giving one’s own men a fighting chance at survival, but by giving one’s opponent a chance. Good morale does not derive from confidence in the soundness of one’s tactical position, but in refusing to acknowledge the relevance and significance of facts, such as the vulnerability of one’s position.
The South was anti-individualist, anti-this-world, and anti-reason, and this, more than anything, explains not only why they had no hope in defeating the wealthy, civilized, industrialized North, but also why they would throw away their lives in such a hopeless endeavor in the first place.
Certainly that is true, but to me the point of interest was that while overall that was definitely the philosophical position of the South, it was clear that that philosophy did not drive every individual Confederate officer, at least not all of the time. General Longstreet, in particular, made every effort to convince Lee to either avoid the battle entirely, or to at least take a more sensible approach to it. Lee ignored him, to the great detriment of everyone involved, but I had not known that there had been such a significant split in the beliefs/choices of the Confederate leaders.
It is also my understanding that there were similar problems on the Union side (in terms of beliefs about honor and a refusal to acknowledge the realities of the war, such as how new weaponry had necessitated a change in tactics), especially in the early years, and it was not until later generals (such as Sherman and Grant) were willing and able to take decisive action that the Union made real headway in defeating the Confederacy.
Yes, that’s a good point, and people have free will, so at any given time there is a wide range of possibilities of how things will go.
Still though, when thinking about a battle, I like to think about the context of the war which made the events of the battle possible. This leads to fundamental questions such as, why did the two peoples fight? And in what respects did their approaches differ? (The respects in which the two opposing sides are similar have less relevance to understanding the events of a conflict.)
Again though, I think you make a good point about the significance of this single concrete decision, and from a story-telling perspective it’s a much better concretization than all the various philosophical trends of history.
Indeed, as an aside, it can sometimes be a grave error to go into historical analysis of wider events when trying to understand a fictional story. Although oftentimes those things are being explicitly or implicitly addressed as part of one of the central issues of the story, this is not always the case. A story is always limited, always takes some things, events, etc. for granted. Sometimes, a story is set in a war context because it is necessary in order to set up the key characters, but the actions which gave rise to that context are not presented for the reader’s evaluation in any meaningful way. In this case, focusing on the background becomes a distraction from the actual story.
I think what I’m trying to say is that there are many levels of analysis for what’s going on, and there can be different takeaways depending on the level of abstraction of the evaluation.