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July 05, 2013 9:11 am

The Amend Corner: Oh, to be in Pennsylvania

Written by Don Amend

This week, I would rather not be at home.

Were it not for certain medical issues, I would be in Pennsylvania this week, attending the activities observing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg — which include a reenactment of the events of those three July days of horror and heroism by thousands of ordinary people who make a hobby of reliving the events of the Civil War. One of them is my nephew Jake.

My wish to be there is a bit unusual. I’m generally averse to spending time standing in big crowds on hot July days. The last time I did that was in 1985, when my family spent July 4 on the Mall in Washington. While there were lots to look at, and the fireworks display was great, it was a pretty long and not very comfortable day, and crowds kept us from getting close enough to hear the Beach Boys.

I’m sure this Gettysburg event will be a little like that; still, I would like to be there.

That’s because, like many if not most students of history, I am fascinated by this battle, which most historians call the turning point in the Civil War — a war for the soul of the nation that casts a shadow over our nation even today. One of the first books I ever owned was titled “Gettysburg,” written for pre-teen readers, and my 10-year-old mind digested the story as a great adventure until my Pennsylvania-born mom explained the reality of the battle to me.

Years of reading since then have made me acutely conscious of the tragedy of this battle and this war.

Some years ago, the story of this battle was retold in a movie, and I remember watching the defense of Little Round Top, one of the most crucial events in the battle. I watched as Alabama soldiers made several assaults, only to be repelled by men from Maine, who, almost out of ammunition, broke the last assault with a charge that probably saved the Union army from disaster.

As I watched that sequence, I found it ironic that men from Alabama and Maine would be trying to kill each other in Pennsylvania, and wondered at the mentality that brought those men together.

The root causes of the Civil War were planted in the aftermath of the American Revolution, if not before. There are whole books written about why the South seceded and why the North fought to keep the nation whole, and I don’t have space to go into them in this essay.

It is sufficient to say that they are not simple black and white reasons, and that the war was not strictly a North vs. South affair.

When it comes right down to it, the spark that started the fire was an election, and the losers of that election, afraid that the new president would bring changes they couldn’t live with, decided to break their compact with the rest of the country. That’s why nearly 160,000 men marched toward Gettysburg to confront each other in 1863; why about 7,000 of them died there and why 30,000 suffered wounds.

Looking back, it’s easy to say that everybody, except for the slaves, probably would have been better off if the South had worked within the system instead of inviting war. In the long run, even the slaves might have been better off.

Economics and the tide of history were running against slavery, and it likely would have died even if the South had won. While its demise would probably not have been smooth, it wouldn’t have been so sanguinary.

Today, we again have people talking about taking the union apart, and the talk started when the results of the election of 2008 were clear. The talk will probably continue to be just that, but when you’re dealing with human beings, you never know just what spark will start a fire or how horrific the results of that fire will be.

That’s why I think this week’s observance and reenactments are important. They should remind us of the consequences that can come from such talk, and the need to speak out against those who spread it.

I wish I were in Pennsylvania for this celebration, but since I can’t be, I guess I’ll just depend on Jake to carry the family banner and tell me all about it sometime.

Instead, maybe I’ll pick up that old book, which I can see on the shelf from where I’m writing this, and read it for the first time since, probably, 1955. I’ll compare it with what I’ve read since, and maybe I’ll learn something about why that battle fascinated me and sparked my love of history.

1 Comment

  • Comment Link July 12, 2013 5:44 pm posted by Marvin Shepherd

    Well said Mr. Amend!

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