Sunday, July 03, 2005

Dedication to the Great Task Remaining

As we approach July Fourth, it's important to remember, in this time of war, that this was also the weekend of one of the greatest and pivotal battles ever fought on American soil -- Gettysburg. Had the Union lost, as seemed likely to many then, the spirit of the Union to continue what had been a protracted and demoralising war would have been broken. At this point in the War, the American people were sick and tired of it and the endless, bloody battles. There was a serious desire by some to sue for peace and let the Confedereacy go its own way.

Had the North lost at Gettysburg, Lincoln would have been forced to negotiate an armistice or even an end to the War Between the States, permanently dividing America into two lesser nations, and would also likely have been defeated in his re-election bid. His former top General, McClellan, was running against him and in the wake of armistice might have won. McClellan was a ditherer, given to ignoring Lincoln's orders or so protracting carrying them out as to void their purpose. He was a general who didn't like to fight. Imagine that kind of man as President.

I'd recommend renting Ron Maxwell's magnificent Gettysburg (based on Michael Shaara's book The Killer Angels, a good read) to learn more about those three days. It's a bit dry, also hagiographic, but it was filmed at Gettysburg itself and immerses you in the sense of the flow, chaos and terror of battle as few movies do. How many men and women do you know today who would race across hundreds of yards of open ground into gunfire coming from the hill they must take? The men who did this in Pickett's Charge knew they faced certain death, and went anyway.

The movie also has a sterling performance by Jeff Daniels as Lt. Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain was a professor from a small college in Maine who volunteered and led his company that day. His first assignment was to hold Little Round Top, the southernmost flank of the Union line, at all costs. If he folded or broke, the Confederates would come streaming up the Union line and destroy them. There was no option but to stay.

He did. Despite few men and low ammunition, they stuck it out against a much larger force in a heroic stand that saved the Union. As the last of their ammunition was fired, he got his men to fix bayonets and charged the Confederates coming up his mountain. It mightily confused the rebels and broke their spirit.

Chamberlain rose through the army to become a Major General. After the war, he returned home, he became president of his college , and later was elected to four terms as Governor of Maine. A remarkable man, and Daniels portrays him as unrelentingly humble but unswervingly driven by his faith and his principles. He gives a speech as Chamberlain deep in the movie that is as moving and compelling a summation of the moral cause of the War as any I've ever heard. And Kevin Conroy, as his Sergeant, Kilrain, gives an equally powerful reply.

The guys at Power Line blog have a great post, filled with links, about this battle. Please don't lose yourself in the pleasures of a three day weekend without remembering the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have lost their lives in the causes that make it possible. To do less is to dishonor their sacrifice.

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