July 3, 1863
It is all over. The three bloody days, the valiant charge, the confusion, the loss, the fear and failure, the bittersweet victory. Gettysburg is done.
Michael Shaara gives us a glimpse of the feelings of that closing hour with the final chapter of his historical masterpiece, The Killer Angels. We find Chamberlain, just before the night sets in, reflecting on the beauty and carnage of that dreadful day. Just that morning, the field before the Cemetery Ridge was a flowing spray of green and yellow wheat. Now it was black and bloody, a hell of death.
He remembers the glorious advance of the Confederates that day: the solid formation, the glistening flags, and then the motion – the fearful movement of a mile of men, advancing through clouds of smoke and fire, dying, killing, screaming. And yet, all somehow awesome in its beauty. It was something to tell future generations: the immense glory of it, the last final charge, the sense of victory so close yet unclaimed. And afterwards, the tragedy that stays with you as an empty space, void of feeling.
Lightning pricks the sky. The rain mingles with the dust on his face, and he licks the taste of Gettysburg’s earth on his tongue. Tom finds him, and Chamberlain, remembering his own regretful action, determines to send him away, for he fears Tom will die if they stay together.1
Tom expresses amazement at the brave charge of Confederates. “Well, nobody ever said they wasn’t good soldiers. Well, they’re Americans anyway, even if they are Rebs” (Shaara, 2004, p. 329). Yet he cannot figure out how they can fight so valiantly for slavery. Chamberlain realizes he hadn’t thought on the Cause when the battle was raging. It was only after reflection does meaning, the “theology of it,” present itself. But now, as he casts his eye over the fallen, he sees that “they are all equal now” (Shaara, 2004, p. 330). Indeed, Gettysburg was the day that most tested the notion that the United States was a nation brought forth in liberty and equality. It was the turning point that saved the Union, the marker that points to the rise again of the noble principles that bore it. Said Chamberlain of the battle of Gettysburg many years later:
In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls. (qtd. in Trulock, 1992, pp. 157-58)
Evening, July 3: The rain increases, carries away the blood and quenches the fires, washes the rocks and grass and earth, soaking into the sadness to revive the land one day to green life, refreshed life … freedom.
1. Chamberlain did not actively decide to send his brother Tom away from his regiment. After Chamberlain’s promotion following the Gettysburg campaign, he promoted Tom to a company commander. (Trulock, 1992, p. 164; Pardoe, 2004)
Pardoe, R. (2004). “Go plug that hole over there”: Gettysburg. Retrieved from http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/TomCh2.html
—. (2004). “Tom is finely”: From Gettysburg to Appomattox and beyond. Retrieved from http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/TomCh3.html
Shaara, M. (2004). The killer angels. New York, NY: Modern Library. (Original work published 1974)
Trulock, A.R. (1992). In the hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina.
The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.