I used to tell my history students that if I could be anywhere in the world I would want to be right there in the classroom, teaching their generation the story of the greatest nation in the history of the world. Most of the time I meant it.
If I could be anywhere in the world today I would like to be 700 miles to the north, in Gettysburg, Pa. Today, July 3, 2013, you see, is the 150th anniversary of the climactic end to that great battle. That day was one of the most significant days in the history of the world. The fate of an entire nation -- and of the world, really -- lay on the shoulders of one magnificent human being -- Robert E. Lee -- one of the greatest Americans, and an even greater Virginian.
The unplanned battle began unexpectedly. Unplanned. That is the key word because Lee's military genius lay in the planning. He could do more with less than any other general who ever led an army into the field, when he fought on ground of his choosing. On the first day of July in 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac kind of ran into one another and thus did what armies at war do. They fought.
In two days there were massive casualties on both sides, and at the end of two days the Union commander, George Meade, still held the high ground on Cemetery Ridge, south of the little village of Gettysburg. Lee knew what most did not. He knew that if the South was to win her war for independence the victorious blow needed to be struck then and there. The Southern Confederacy was rapidly running short of everything needed to wage war -- weapons, ammunition, food, clothing, soldiers -- everything except will and courage.
The Union blockade, which U.S. President Abraham Lincoln ordered at the beginning of the war was getting tighter and tighter, and Lee knew that unless he could give England and France concrete evidence to make them believe the South had a real chance to win the war, there would be no help coming from those quarters. So despite the pleas from his generals -- most notably James Longstreet -- Lee insisted that "the enemy is there and there is where we will attack."
He sent Gen. George Pickett's division against the center of the Union lines, marching across a mile-wide open field into the mouths of the Northern cannon that had not been silenced by the Confederates' own hour-long barrage. They had to stop and climb fences on several occasions as their already outnumbered ranks became thinner and thinner with each step. Then they mounted a charge up a steep hill and over a stone wall into the very heart of the Union Army.
Amazingly a few gallant men fought their way into the breach of the Union lines -- the High-water Mark of the Confederacy -- before their remnants were forced back across the bloody path they had trod.
Lee would persist in carrying on his fledgling nation's struggle for almost two more years, but for all practical purposes, the war was over that day.
I have been to Gettysburg. I have seen the monuments. I have sat and meditated in the railroad cut where so many patriots, in both blue and butternut, lost their lives on the first day of battle. I have wondered how the history of the battle and the world would have been different had Stonewall Jackson and not Jubal Early received Lee's command to attack if "practicable." I have sat -- for hours -- on Little Roundtop -- trying to take in the immense scope of the battle. I have climbed among the rocks in Devil's Den and I have stood beneath the great equestrian statue of Lee -- the Virginia Monument on the Gettysburg Battle Field -- and wondered what went through the great man's mind as he watched what was left of his tattered army return from the ill-fated assault on Cemetery Ridge.
I have spent the night at Lee's Headquarters and wandered the grounds at midnight, trying to conjure up the ghost of J.E.B. Stuart as he rode in, hat in hand, to apologize to Lee for his dereliction of duty, which allowed the Confederate army to wander into war on ground not of Lee's choosing. I have wandered the field alone at night, listening for the moans and groans of the ghosts people swear still occupy that hallowed ground.
And today hundreds of thousands are gathered on the battlefield to pay homage to the valiant men of both sides who died 150 years ago today. I wish I were among their number. I can't be there today, but I will return to Gettysburg, as often as "practicable" to be reminded of the struggles this nation has faced in order to survive.
Another thing I used to tell my students is that every American should visit four places before they die. One is Washington, D.C. Another is Pearl Harbor. Ground Zero joined my list in 2001 and the fourth -- Gettysburg. It is altogether fitting and proper.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at email@example.com. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.