Reflections on Gettysburg

By Dr. Earl Tilford

Reflections on Gettysburg
The Center For Vision & Values
The Center For Vision & Values

Grove City, PA –-( It’s July in Alabama and 100 degrees in the shade. Despite the heat, I crack the bedroom window at night to soak up the sounds and smells of the South. The crickets in the woods, a hoot owl on occasion, and the smell of fresh-cut grass riding on the tinkling of a small brook running through our housing development in Tuscaloosa.

I’m home and I love it.

In July 2008, after 16 years living in Pennsylvania, I returned to Alabama to write a history of the University of Alabama during the 1960s. On June 11, 1963, 50 years ago, Governor George Wallace stood in the door of the university’s Foster Auditorium, in a futile attempt to stop two black students from registering. Wallace couldn’t thwart something initiated by events on the wheat fields, in the forested hills, and orchards around Gettysburg, during the first three days of July 1863.

For nine of those 16 years spent “up north” I lived in Carlisle, 30 miles north of Gettysburg. My job at the Army War College required me to drive the 90 miles south to the Pentagon once every week, a drive that took me by the Gettysburg Battlefield. On several occasions I visited that place where, 150 years ago, the future of this republic was decided. When I taught at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania, I showed the movie “Gettysburg” to my US military history classes. I’d joke that had I been there on July 3, 1863, for sure my great, great grandson would be teaching in Pennsylvania on a work visa.

It took eight months to bury the dead. More Americans died on each of the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg than died in the dozen years of the War on Terror.

Half the soldiers killed in all American wars since the seventeenth century—about a million in all—died in our civil war.

Almost all were of Anglo-Saxon, Scots-Irish, or German-Dutch dissent. They were Christians, mostly Protestant with Catholics from Boston and New York City, Savannah and New Orleans thrown in. Slavery ignited the conflagration, but few slave owners fought in the war. General Ulysses S. Grant was one of them; his wife inherited a handful of slaves from her father. Many slave owners, especially the bourbons from the Black Belt of Alabama and Mississippi, either hired substitutes or pled their case for staying home based on keeping their slaves from rebelling.

It was a war fought by dirt poor Southern white farmers on one side and a lot of German and Irish immigrants filling out the ranks of dirt poor Yankee farmers on the other side. Despite sharing the same race, religion, and history, they slaughtered one another with alacrity. What a different country this might have been if, 400 years ago, someone had suggested, “Let’s pick our own cotton.”

In July 1863, men on both sides prayed for victory but mostly for mercy should the next day be theirs to enter paradise. They prayed unabashedly to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and ended their prayers in Christ’s name. Politicians and generals were still doing that through World War II, the last war we clearly won.

Since living up north, every year about now my mind has traveled back to Little Round Top where, on July 2, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Volunteers turned back several rebel surges. Had my great, great grandpa gotten up there to rain artillery on the Union flank, I might well have been teaching in Pennsylvania on a work visa. I’m glad the 20th Maine stood fast.

A day and 108 years after Pickett’s Charge, I celebrated the Fourth of July at an air show put on by the US Air Force fighter wing at Udorn Air Base, Thailand. I watched with other American servicemen and women from Alabama and New York, Mississippi and Iowa, Ohio and Florida, some black, some white, and some brown like my best friend, Rich Gonzalez from Mexico City via San Diego, California.

Forty-two years makes for a paid up mortgage on a life lived as a free American. Hopefully my children and grandchildren will remain as free and it will be thanks to the over 1,000,000 Americans who made that possible, including the half of them slaughtered in our nation’s biggest political blunder.

I watched a movie the other night; a chick flick with a poignant message wrapped up in two lines. “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, then it’s not yet the end.”

It really depends on who is in charge at the end…

— Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he recently authored a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

© 2013 by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. The views & opinions expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City College.

  • 5 thoughts on “Reflections on Gettysburg

    1. If I remember correctly that is a picture of an area defended by Buford’s Cavalry early on the first day of fighting. You notice the shoes and boots were all scavenged as the victors moved through.

      I just hope and pray that during the Second Civil war we don’t have regular uniformed US Military troops defending the current rulers.

    2. I believe that we are on the eve of our second civil war. I only hope that this coming war goes better than did the first, which was won by the oppressors. I have stood atop Little Round Top and felt the sadness of the loss suffered there.

    3. Unless the American people do something extreme REAL soon it is already to late for any of your descendents to enjoy the freedoms you have enjoyed , which were much less than the freedoms your parents enjoyed already .

    4. Thank you, Dr. Tilford. I too look at Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain as one of THE “great American Heroes”…not just for the inspiration he showed during the battles…but also for the wisdom and courage of his convictions he showed at Appamattox Court House when he showed respect to the remaining troops of the Army of Northern Virginia.

      We, as a nation, have been blessed to see men such as Gen. Chamberlain rise to prominence at times of great need. We, also, as a nation, have been loath to find those men UNTIL there is great need (usually brought on by other men of unimaginably lesser quality).

      The battles those brave men fought and died in paved the way for the most amazing ascent to world power of any nation in history. They also paid, in FULL, for the adherence to our Founders’ values being cemented into our nation and ALL its people.

      Your ancestor would have fought for the Confederacy, as did some of mine (and, being a child of these times, some also fought for the Union). Those men fought for what they felt were State’s Rights. The Union fought for what they felt was freedom from slavery. Both sides were right…and both paid a horrible price in discovering that truth.

      Our country is again in dire need of a Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. We have allowed a growth within our government to infect our society with the opposite of what were once universally regarded as “American Values”. We need another leader – one with vision, wisdom, strength and the courage to make the RIGHT decision, whether it be the popular one or not.

      I pray, as did those men, every day for the strength to do what I must and that the leader we so desperately need may rise to set us back on the path those men paid the toll for. May God have mercy on America and may we Americans have none for those who would destroy her principles for their own gain.

    5. What happened to the consent of the governed? I’ll never get those who think the War of Northern Aggression was some great thing:

      “On the part of the North, the war was carried on, not to liberate slaves, but by a government that had always perverted and violated the Constitution, to keep the slaves in bondage; and was still willing to do so, if the slaveholders could be thereby induced to stay in the Union.

      “The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals.

      “No principle, that is possible to be named, can be more self-evidently false than this; or more self-evidently fatal to all political freedom. Yet it triumphed in the field, and is now assumed to be established. If it really be established, the number of slaves, instead of having been diminished by the war, has been greatly increased; for a man, thus subjected to a government that he does not want, is a slave. And there is no difference, in principle — but only in degree — between political and chattel slavery. The former, no less than the latter, denies a man’s ownership of himself and the products of his labor; and [*iv] asserts that other men may own him, and dispose of him and his property, for their uses, and at their pleasure.”

      –Lysander Spooner, No Treason, No. 1

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