George Will is making his usual hash of American history, this time in the service of honoring the Battle of Gettysburg. He wants to argue that Gettysburg is the most important battle in American history, a fair enough point, but the way he eliminates other candidates sometimes borders on the farcical. Saratoga, which brought the French in on the American side during the Revolution? Less important than it might seem because:
But the Revolution would have succeeded without French assistance: No distant island could govern this continent.
This completely elides the critical difference the French actually made, which was to neutralize the overwhelming British naval superiority (something that made Yorktown possible) and also to threaten the British Isles themselves. The British could survive losing naval control of the Chesapeake Bay. The English Channel? Not so much. But it also ignores that a substantial number of continents or continental nations – Canada, Australia, India, etc – continued to be successfully ruled by the British after losing the thirteen colonies. No, French assistance was absolutely critical to the success of the Revolution. By extension, Saratoga remains an absolutely critical battle.
Japan’s defeat was assured when its attack on Pearl Harbor enraged a continental superpower.
Yes, I note how Afghanistan’s defeat was assured when 9/11 enraged a continental superpower.
Antietam would have shortened the war, saving hundreds of thousands of lives, if Gen. George McClellan, among the most disagreeable figures in U.S. history, had pursued the retreating Lee. But Antietam was most important for what it enabled Lincoln to proclaim 106 days later.
That’s a really odd statement. Antietam – like Gettysburg – stopped a Confederate invasion of the north. The criticism of McClellan for not chasing Lee after Antietam has, as a near-perfect parallel, the criticism of Meade for not chasing Lee after Gettysburg. And since when do the political results of a particular battle not count as much as the military ones? The Emancipation Proclamation – while not freeing many if any slaves – did effectively neutralize the chance that the British would come into the war on the Confederate side and thus do to the Union what the French did to the British in the American Revolution.
Having thrown out the contenders, Will continues on his merry way, stopping to get a slap in at the academy:
Books about battles, historian Allen C. Guelzo says tartly, have “acquired among my academic peers a reputation close to pornography,” war being, in their eyes, chiefly a manifestation of American savagery. But, he says dryly, one cannot discuss the 19th century without discussing the Civil War era, whose “singular event was a war.”
Note the rhetorical slide that Will manages here (actually, it’s Guelzo, if somewhat more subtly). The paragraph starts by talking about battles and finishes by talking about wars. Those are not the same thing. Few historians have given up on wars altogether, but they have (rightly) criticized traditional military history for its overemphasis on the battlefield at the cost of ignoring the social, technological, logistical, and cultural aspects of war. Gettysburg is a classic example of that, given the thousands of books written on the battle (including Gettysburg, the First Day, Gettysburg, the Second Day, and (different works) The First Day at Gettysburg, The Second Day at Gettysburg, The Third Day at Gettysburg). Urf.*
In fact, I note, much of what Will is doing exactly what the newer military history aims at, discussing the cultural place of Gettysburg in American military history. Invoking Faulkner’s discussion of Pickett’s Charge in post-war southern culture is ignoring the battle in favor of squishy social history.**
Then, Will invokes the argument about Gettysburg as a total war and, again bringing in Guelzo, remarks:
The theory that it was the first “modern” or “total” war is, Guelzo acutely says, refuted by “the silent witness of places like Gettysburg, where almost all of the buildings that sat in the path of the battle are still [there]” because the technology of war was too limited to destroy them.
The entirety of Guelzo’s argument is worth quoting:
The best testimony to that lack of totality is the silent witness of place like Gettysburg, where almost all of the buildings that sat in the path of the battle are still here. The technology of nineteenth-century warfare, even as advanced as it was over that of the Napoleonic Wars, was simply too limited to knock them down. It is difficult to understand the ‘modernity’ of a war fought with single-shot muzzle-loading weapons, under the direction of commanders whose chief credential was a diploma from a military engineering school, and on battlefields where it was still reasonably safe to stand up….the Civil War holds the portents of mass, popular wars in which no results could be acceptable but the total defeat of an enemy. But these were still only portents…***
Guelzo’s point is more subtle than Will makes out; the Civil War had elements that looked forward to the total wars of the 20th century, but not enough to be considered a total war itself. I’m not sure I would agree with that point (the totality of the Civil War comes much more from 1864-65, when the siege of Petersburg looked dramatically closer to the Western Front than Guelzo credits, and Sherman was busy demonstrating to the civilian populations of Georgia and South Carolina exactly what their support of the war meant, just as World War II as a total war comes much more from 1941-45 than 1939-41) but it’s arguable.
Will chops up Guelzo’s next point as well when he says:
For those whom Guelzo calls the war’s “cultured despisers,” the Union cause was mere dull democracy, whereas “emancipation makes a better story for our times.” But as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, the war’s ultimate purpose was to preserve the Union in order to prove democracy’s viability. “Unless the Union was restored,” Guelzo says, “there would be no practical possibility of emancipation, since the overwhelming majority of American slaves would, in that case, end up living in a foreign country, and beyond the possible grasp of Lincoln’s best anti-slavery intentions.”
What Will does not say is that Guelzo follows that with “But by the same token, restoring the Union would be a hollow accomplishment unless the blot of race-based slavery was wiped from the Union’s escutcheon…no democracy worth its name could continue to drag the burden of slavery around after it.”
Again Will elides Guelzo’s more subtle argument in favor of his own, Cliff Notes version of it.
But let me finish by suggesting that Lincoln was subtler and smarter than both of them. Lincoln at Gettysburg did not talk about “restoring” or “preserving” the Union. He spoke of remaking it. “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” The United States of the Gettysburg Address is not being put back into place but being recreated by a new birth. Slavery was the original sin of the United States and – Lincoln is saying – only through the consecrated blood of crucifixion can it be reborn. Despite Will and Guelzo, there was no Union to restore, only one to be imagined anew.
By focusing on the battle itself, we risk losing sight of that goal. The heroism of the battlefield is nondenominational, Confederate and Union alike, and so in the gallantry of the 1st Minnesota, the fortitude of the High Water Mark, we might forget that Gettysburg had a right side and a wrong side. The right side won, a victory which led to something much larger and more important. It did not end that struggle, any more than Appomattox did, and on this day of the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, we should also remember later battles won and lost, like Selma and Montgomery and Little Rock and Shelby County v. Holder, and “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
*These are, in fact, all good books, but maybe we can broaden a bit?
**Which has, in fact, been done extremely well by Carol Reardon: Carol Reardon, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
***Guelzo’s book is Allen C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: the Last Invasion (New York: Knopf, 2013).