It was 144 years ago this week.
Thirty-five miles from where I write, for three extraordinarily violent days beginning on July 1st and ending on July 3rd, the fate of America hung in the balance.
By July 4th, the small village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a horrific landscape of carnage. The words of author and educator Garry Wills in his classic Lincoln at Gettysburg leave little to the imagination:
…thousands of fermenting bodies, with gas-distended bellies, deliquescing in the July heat….Eight thousand human bodies were scattered over, or (barely) under, the ground. Suffocating teams of soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and dragooned civilians slid the bodies beneath a minimal covering, as fast as possible….It was work to be done hugger-mugger or not at all, fighting clustered bluebottle flies black on the earth, shoveling and retching by turns…the scene was repellent…the whole area of Gettysburg — a town of only 2,500 inhabitants — was fetid and steaming…
The total number of killed, wounded and missing is estimated by most historians to approach over 50,000.
It was one battle. And things were about to get worse.
A mere eight days after the last shots were heard at Gettysburg, draft riots erupted in New York City on July 11. Democratic Governor of New York Horatio Seymour had egged the rioters on, telling New Yorkers in a speech on the Fourth that sometimes it was justified for people to take action — and the law — into their own hands. Days later, they did. Mobs roamed the streets of New York, lynching any black they could find, killing an enrolling officer charged with enforcing the draft. Hatred for the Lincoln administration and particularly for the changed rationale for the war was palpable. Originally told by Lincoln that the war was to preserve the Union, the announcement that the war’s objectives now included emancipation had infuriated many in New York, Democrats in particular. Federal soldiers were sent in, promptly killing 27 rioters with a blast of cannon. Only after hundreds of troops from Pennsylvania arrived did the anti-Lincoln riots end. The violence had gone on for six days.
In light of all the self-induced defeatism swirling about the war in Iraq — the non-stop wailing about “mistakes” and the “I-told-you-so” finger shaking from responsible people who should know better, one has to wonder what, if anything, they know about American history?
Or perhaps the correct question in light of all of the hysteria in the face of an enemy quite seriously reminding the world of their ultimate intentions yet again, this time in London and Glasgow, is: Was the Civil War worth it? Was Lincoln’s resolve for victory in the face of the massive slaughter at Gettysburg (and elsewhere) a good thing?
Was the scene described by Garry Wills above really necessary? In light of the insistence that we should abandon Iraqis to their fate and let our enemies build a base from which to attack more Glasgows and Londons (not to mention New Yorks and Washingtons) with ever more lethal weapons and refined accuracy, the defeatist rhetoric of today makes one wonder whether any war is really necessary. Wouldn’t it have been better to simply accept the idea pushed by the defeatists of the 1860s that African-Americans were destined for slavery and that it was just too bloody and ghastly a proposition to do anything to unchain them? After all, a lot of Americans, as was amply demonstrated in the New York draft riots, had quite plainly turned against the war.
The other day Senator Barack Obama gave a speech in which he blithely paid a passing tribute to the abolition movement. He said not a word about the conduct of his own party during those days, and its determination to shut the Civil War down, to declare it a failure, to accuse another president of bait and switch tactics designed to get America into war.
So when is it worth fighting for something? If so many Democrats of the 1860s believed neither the Union nor freedom for blacks was worth the fight, that the carnage visited in three short days in Gettysburg was far too much to ask, why should that not be any less true today?
The answer to the Iraq War critics is perhaps best provided by another man from another period of American history. On this Fourth of July it resonates:
“Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation?…I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past….Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation. ..I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array if its purpose be not to force us to submission?”
The speaker was Patrick Henry, addressing the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775. He ended, of course, with his ringing declaration to “give me liberty or give me death.” But Henry’s perceptive understanding about the aggressive intention of King George III was, as with Lincoln’s estimate of the necessity of fighting to both save the Union and free the slaves, well grounded in an understanding of human nature.
Confronted by the latest episodes of a “painful truth” on vivid display in Glasgow and London, the biggest enemy America faces is a mindset that relegates the very real horrors of Gettysburg to some facile description of “abolition,” and shuts its eyes to the actual costs that made the freedom of every black man, woman, and child in America a reality. It looks at television screens portraying intentionally staged violence in Iraq and flinches.
“Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction?” asked Patrick Henry almost 90 years before the carnage of Gettysburg. “Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies have bound us hand and foot?”
For an increasingly vocal number of Americans, the answer seems to be “yes!”
As we celebrate this latest Fourth of July, all Americans — both supporters and opponents of the war in Iraq — could do worse than to reflect on what it really means to pay for the freedom they see all around them. To understand that the horrors that were visited 144 years ago on this quaint Pennsylvania town just down the road from here were necessary to the freedom we wake up to every single day in the 21st century.
And to understand as well that what has happened in Glasgow and London — and the debate that rages in America right now — is in reality nothing new at all. Patrick Henry would have recognized all of it, and understood the significance immediately. So too would Lincoln.
Neither would be surprised that as we celebrate this latest Fourth of July, there are still those among their own modern countrymen who, “having eyes, see not, having ears, hear not.”
It is a painful truth. And there will be a price.
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