At the conclusion of all great battles, according to Norse mythology, winged female creatures hover over the slain in search of the warriors who fought the most valiantly. When they find the bravest of combatants, these winged Valkyries spirit them away to the mythical banquet hall at Valhalla. There Odin, the greatest of Norse gods, entertains the slain heroes with a sumptuous feast. When the morning dawns, the warriors again take to the field of battle, this time in Odin’s kingdom. After a day spent demonstrating their courage and martial skill against one another, these heroes, including those killed in the fighting who now rise, return to the banquet hall to begin the same cycle again. The highest of honors in Norse culture was to prove oneself worthy enough on the field of battle to be selected by the Valkyries and taken to Valhalla to spend eternity in combat and fellowship among the greatest warriors.
In the relatively short history of the United States, the national culture has developed its own unique myths. Although they may not measure up to the elaborate religion of ancient Greece, they are still a powerful source of knowledge and culture. The story of Gettysburg is America’s Valhalla, and though George Meade and Robert E. Lee may not measure up to the likes of Odin or Zeus or Apollo in the minds of many, the sociological process is the same, and many of those who immerse themselves in the story of the battle are, in their own way, waiting for the Valkyries.
Dan Sickles spent his life trying to lift himself up to greatness, though he seemed to thwart his own designs. Whether by murdering his wife’s lover, making some political misstep, or creating a scandal, he managed to help illustrious fame escape him — until Gettysburg. Failing to achieve unquestionable greatness on the battlefield, he successfully engaged in mythmaking. Within hours of his being carried from the battlefield on a stretcher, he began telling his story to President Abraham Lincoln and anyone else of authority or prominence he could find. Though he had to bend the facts to his whim — or ignore them altogether — his lifelong campaign for the lion’s share of credit for the great victory there enabled him to write, near the end of his life, ‘I won the great and decisive battle of Gettysburg.’
Though this statement was a bit bolder than time has judged it, in the years following 1863 he saw to the design and placement of most of the New York monuments on the field. He shaped Gettysburg history by creating one of its greatest sources of debate and controversy, significantly affecting what veterans wrote and how they wrote it. And he was almost single-handedly responsible for the establishment of Gettysburg National Military Park as a federal entity.
In 1913, six months after avoiding arrest and prison for embezzling the balance of the New York Monuments Commission’s treasury, the 93-year-old Sickles made his final visit to Gettysburg to take part in the 50th anniversary ceremonies and reunion. During this visit, he was asked whether he was disappointed that there was no monument to him on the battlefield. Advancing age had not robbed him of his ability to turn an issue on its head. ‘Hell,’ he replied, ‘the whole damned battlefield is my memorial!’
As a matter of history, it is not possible to determine whether Sickles was right or wrong at Gettysburg — this is a question of opinion with no absolute answer. It is, however, possible to assess how the one-legged old politician managed to shape the story of Gettysburg in the popular mind. In that sense, what he did after July 2, 1863, may be a far more useful subject of historical inquiry than are his actions on the field.
John Bachelder tried to paint the greatness he felt for the Battle of Bunker Hill. Unable to capture it in the way he hoped, he set out in search of another great moment in history. When he decided Gettysburg would serve his purposes, he spent decades trying to make the world see it as the pivotal battle of the American Civil War. By doing so, he elevated his own stature as the central Gettysburg historian of his time and served as an important gatekeeper for those who wished to shape the story of the battlefield in a particular way. Gettysburg gave Bachelder’s life a greater meaning and purpose, and made him something of a celebrity among those who had fought there or sought to understand the fighting. What is most revealing about Bachelder’s relationship with Gettysburg is that despite all of the data he amassed, all of the veterans he personally walked the field with, three decades of intense study, and more than enough money to accomplish the task, he found he simply could not tell the factual story of Gettysburg either on canvas or in print. In the end, he came to see that truth is a malleable force and history has few absolute conclusions.
Unlike many of his comrades and foes at Gettysburg, Jubal Early was less interested in the martial glory of Valhalla than a larger theme in his postwar quest. That the Valkyries had passed him by seemed not to matter at all. In his efforts to shape the history of the war and of Gettysburg, Early focused not so much on his own stature as on his desire to promote a way of life that had passed. A vehement defender of antebellum Southern culture, Early used his influence over the story of Gettysburg to promote certain ideals, elevating some men to near sainthood while vigorously working to destroy others. That he moved beyond exaggeration and into the realm of fabrication — as with the’sunrise attack order’ — seemed not to matter as much as the way people would someday come to view the cultural norms of his past.
Contrary to what most visitors to Gettysburg perceive, the life of Joshua Chamberlain after Gettysburg was one of misery and pain. Nearly a year after leading his regiment in its now famous defense of Little Round Top, the former professor personally led an assault on the Confederate works at Petersburg. As he turned to encourage his men, a bullet pierced his right hip, tore a hole through him that nearly killed him and caused permanent leakage in his bladder. He survived the wound that doctors were certain was mortal, only to be shot again the following April. At Appomattox, he was chosen by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to preside over the surrender of the Confederate infantry before returning home to life in Maine. He served four one-year terms as governor of his home state, then 13 more as president of Bowdoin College, his alma mater.
In the half century that made up his postwar years, Chamberlain’s life was dominated by almost constant pain from repeated bladder infections caused by the Petersburg wound along with recurring bouts of malaria, among other ailments. The second factor, which dominated his writings and his reputation after the Civil War, was Gettysburg. Though he could claim far greater credit and fame for his courageous actions at Petersburg and on the road to Appomattox, Chamberlain’s thoughts of war seemed fixed on Gettysburg. As the fame and importance of the battle grew, so did its prominence in his memories. When one of his former students recommended him to the U.S. Army’s Record and Pension Office for the Medal of Honor, he cited his entire military career. The law governing the medal, however, required that a single event be the basis of the citation, and since Gettysburg was the most famous battle in which he was engaged, the citation lists his ‘courage and tenacity’ at Gettysburg.
Like the foot doctors who found a connection between their profession and the battle through a mythical shoe factory, people from all walks of life gravitate to the story of Gettysburg and find some aspect of it that is connected to them. Their involvement with the story and the place seems to touch many of them deeply as they pursue the record of a relative, someone from their hometown or any other relationship to this heroic past. Artists visit the field to study the changing styles of sculpture through the years, evident in the Confederate state monuments placed in varying decades. Geologists have studied the ground in search of some connection to their work and the battle’s outcome, and musicians compose and perform many styles of music about the events of 1863.
All of them seek some connection with the heroism, chivalry and importance that they associate with the Gettysburg story. They are, in a sense, waiting for the Valkyries to lift them up to Valhalla by association.
The sight of wool-clad reenactors and women in elaborate Southern dress walking up and down the sidewalk would startle the residents of most towns, but in Gettysburg it is a daily occurrence. Even when men dressed as soldiers carry their muskets, swords and side arms into stores and restaurants, few take notice. This small Pennsylvania hamlet has become a place to commune with those who already dine at Valhalla. On summer evenings it is not at all unusual to find someone dressed in full 1863 military regalia standing by a monument greeting passersby, often ‘in character’ as if the battle had occurred the day before. This is not something that happens regularly anywhere else. The people who wander the grounds of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall dressed as Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson are paid employees of the National Park Service. Most of those who spend time in period dress regaling the public with their tales at Gettysburg do it as a regular Saturday evening out, without any sanction or endorsement from the Park Service or any other historically minded association. Though some have researched their roles in depth, for many their knowledge of the events they describe is often cursory at best.
The search for a spiritual connection to times past has even sought to overcome the barriers of life and death. All of the men who fought at Gettysburg have long since passed on, but thousands of visitors to Gettysburg spend summer nights strolling the town on one of the many ghost tours in which tour guides, dressed in period clothing, tell tales of soldiers whose spirits have yet to completely leave the battlefield. Advertising Gettysburg as ‘the most haunted place in America,’ ghost books, T-shirts, videos, tours and conventions have become a thriving part of a Gettysburg industry that measures the search for Valkyries in dollars — lots of them. A 1990s study sponsored by the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg determined that the economic impact of the battlefield on Adams County, Pa., is estimated at $250 million annually.
When the fighting ended at Gettysburg, few people perceived it as the great crucible — the great turning point — of the conflict. In fact, a year after the battle there was widespread feeling that the Union was losing the war. Things were so bad by August 1864 that even President Lincoln’s supporters doubted he could win reelection in the coming fall. In a letter to Lincoln, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley begged the president to give in. ‘Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country,’ he wrote, ‘longs for peace — shudders at the prospect of fresh conscriptions, of further wholesale devastations, and of new rivers of human blood. I entreat you to submit overtures for pacification to the Southern insurgents.’ A month later, Greeley made his feelings public. In an editorial in the Tribune he declared: ‘Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow.’ Lincoln himself was no more optimistic when he confided to a friend, ‘You think that I don’t know I am going to be beaten, but I do and unless some great change takes place, badly beaten.’
As it happened, a great change did take place when Union forces in the field won significant and decisive victories in two different theaters and the nation gave Lincoln a vote of confidence to continue the struggle. Clearly, Americans in 1864 did not see Gettysburg as the pivotal event on which the entire war swung. Instead, this perception grew and developed into a common belief after the war ended. Today the idea is so firmly entrenched in the popular belief that it is only rarely even considered, much less debated.
It is interesting, then, that Lincoln and Gettysburg have become so deeply intertwined. Four and a half months after the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia turned for home, on November 19, 1863, Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery. Though he spoke for less than three minutes, his words further elevated the story of Gettysburg. As with the importance of Gettysburg, however, Lincoln’s speech was not considered by everyone to be as profound then as it is today. The immediate reaction of the crowd left even Lincoln with the impression that it had been a failure. To his friend Ward Lamon he remarked, ‘It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed.’ Many newspaper reporters in attendance at Lincoln’s address panned the speech. A Harrisburg, Pa., newspaper editorial stated, ‘We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the Nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.’ That same day, the Chicago Times opined that ‘the cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.’ The editor of the Chicago Tribune, however, offered a different perspective: ‘The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.’
Today, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is revered as one of the greatest public speeches ever and has its own monument in the Soldiers National Cemetery, though it was placed 100 yards or more from where Lincoln actually stood. Entwined with its greatness, however, is the idea that Lincoln gave little or no effort to writing the speech. As Garry Wills describes it in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, ‘The silly but persistent myth is that he jotted it on the back of an envelope.’ Lincoln had in fact written the speech weeks before the event and had asked several people to read it over for him before he traveled to Pennsylvania.
This Lincoln and Gettysburg myth began with the prominent men who had been with the president prior to the speech. As Wills points out, they crafted various stories about how the president rather cavalierly scribbled down the words almost without thought. ‘They wanted to be intimate with the gestation of the extraordinary speech,’ Wills writes, ‘watching the pen or pencil move under the inspiration of the moment.’
Once the story was in place, and in print, the perpetuation of the idea stemmed from a perceived correlation between Lincoln and the nation he represented. The symbolism is of the rough, backwoods youth emerging from the frontier and rising to international prominence with such inherent brilliance that he is able to scratch immortal phrases on a handy scrap of paper with little effort. This is a powerful metaphor for the American nation as a whole. A rough-and-tumble collection of states carved out of the wilderness possessed such natural power and intellect that, with little effort, it summoned greatness in words and deeds formerly the exclusive ability of royalty. Historian Goldwin Smith touched on this when he wrote that ‘not a sovereign in Europe, however trained from the cradle for state pomps, and however prompted by statesmen and courtiers, could have uttered himself more regally than did Lincoln at Gettysburg.’
It is a formula repeated often in human history — a handful of people present at a critical moment embellish or fabricate a story that gains them some personal importance, and the story, fulfilling a cultural need or perception, is accepted through the generations as the truth of the matter. This is the essence of mythology, and the Gettysburg story is fertile ground for this type of cultural behavior.
Among the often discussed and misunderstood elements of the Gettysburg story is the number of casualties, specifically the number killed, during the fighting. Veterans discussed casualties in Civil War battles in terms of killed, wounded and missing. The last category tended to distort the numerical judgment of a battle. A list of missing was usually created soon after the battle by unit commanders who simply took a head count and deducted the new number from the most recent roll call. Thus any soldier who was not with the unit when this occurred might be included. This figure included men whom the enemy had captured, but it also counted those who fled in fear, became lost in the confusion of battle, or helped a wounded comrade to the rear. The missing figures were often overstated because many of the men soon returned to the regiment. In addition, wounded who went to the rear occasionally found themselves better off than they had first thought and returned to the regimental line within a few hours.
Another category that is difficult to clearly define is the number of soldiers killed at Gettysburg. Most historians estimate that between 8,000 and 12,000 men lost their lives, but the number included in this category depends on varying definitions of the word ‘killed.’ Approximately 8,000 dead bodies lay on or under the battlefield as the fighting ended, with many more to come in the days and weeks that followed. It is these later deaths that are sometimes hard to categorize. For example, Lieutenant Arad Linscott of the 20th Maine Regiment found himself in a field hospital on July 3 with a bullet wound in his thigh. Linscott’s commander originally listed him as wounded, and he slowly gained strength under the care of Union medical personnel. By mid-July, Linscott was well enough that doctors decided he should return home and finish his recuperation under the care of his family. He safely reached home on furlough, but contracted a virus or infection and died at home on July 27. Technically, Linscott died of an illness and not the trauma of a gunshot wound. It is possible that the wound somehow contributed to his death, but this is far from a certainty. As a result, there is some question as to whether Linscott should be listed as killed or wounded at Gettysburg, or whether the overall war record should count him as ‘killed in battle’ or ‘died of disease.’ On learning of his death, members of his unit thought of him as ‘mortally wounded,’ and his death is now among those counted on his regiment’s monument as killed in battle. It is not unusual to see a case such as Linscott’s accidentally listed numerically in both the wounded and the killed categories — first listed as ‘wounded’ and then moved to ‘killed’ without correcting the wounded number.
Adding to the confusion — or flexibility — of Gettysburg casualty numbers is the fact that no central governmental body kept track of the figures beyond initial battlefield reports. The federal government had no office of casualty calculation that followed the condition and recorded the final disposition of each man initially listed as wounded. The numbers used in historical accounts, then, can come from several sources, and someone writing an article or script about the battle can choose the means of calculation that best suits his or her purposes. It is no wonder that the public is confused by so many different sets of numbers.
Another issue that confronts those trying to numerically gauge the impact of the battle is the fact that both armies were made up of people considered Americans. While many were recent immigrants or even foreign nationals fighting for the Union or the Confederacy, the nature of a civil war is that the two sides make up a part of a former whole, and since the American Civil War resulted in the reunification of the two sides, the number of men lost is, in a way, double that of wars in which the United States fought a foreign power. Unlike all other wars, the Civil War casualties on both sides are now listed as American.
In the midst of the confusion and misunderstanding it is easy to imagine how those without a deep knowledge of the events can take the most commonly used number of Gettysburg casualties — 52,000 killed, wounded and missing — make a small slip of the tongue and conclude that more than 50,000 Americans died at Gettysburg, obviously a gross overstatement. Add just one more miscalculation and a true myth is born. In an epilogue to the airing of the movie Gettysburg on his network in 1994, Ted Turner expressed his thoughts on the epic conflict while woefully misstating the numerical facts. More men died at Gettysburg, he told an audience of 40 million viewers, than died in the entire Vietnam War. In fact, only one-sixth as many men died at Gettysburg, and the total of killed, wounded and missing does not equal, much less surpass, the number killed in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the back of the packaging for the home video version of the film reads: ‘When it was all over, 50,000 men had paid the ultimate price.’
Equally confusing results stem from issues that are largely a matter of opinion. Was Lee a better general than Meade? Was Sickles to blame for nearly losing the battle? Which regiment fought hardest? The answers to these questions have no basis in fact. They are issues open to interpretation and misunderstanding, and as such they can be distorted and shaped in a certain way for a certain purpose. When veterans such as Dan Sickles or Jubal Early work actively, even relentlessly, to shape popular knowledge of past events, they literally make history, building a belief in a particular version of the story even if it is partly fabricated.
This myth-making process is not unique to the story of Gettysburg. Napoleon was not short; Vikings did not wear horned helmets; and the Pilgrims did not land on Plymouth Rock, though these misconceptions remain firmly entrenched in the popular mind. Particularly (though not exclusively) in a military sense, Gettysburg has gained a special place in American mythology, and its many meanings are summoned repeatedly in the context of other significant events. In light of the effort spent elevating Gettysburg to mythical status, those who have constructed the story can reflect on a lasting success.
In many ways, Gettysburg has become a bellwether of U.S. history, and American culture will continue to measure the great events of years to come against the importance attributed to the conflict of 1863. In the same way that veterans of the battle measured their experience against the great historical epics that came before them, such as Waterloo, Balaclava and Thermopylae, Americans have regularly looked back at Gettysburg to find a comparison for events that occur in the present. Speaking at the dedication ceremonies for the Oklahoma City National Memorial in 2000, President Bill Clinton reached back to Gettysburg as he sought to comfort those who survived the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. ‘America will never forget,’ Clinton said. ‘There are places in our national landscape so scarred by freedom’s sacrifice that they shape forever the soul of America — Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Selma. This place is such sacred ground.’
It has been many decades since Americans used the story of Gettysburg in a public way to the extent that politicians and journalists have summoned its meanings in the wake of the tragedies of September 11, 2001. At a memorial service marking the first anniversary of this event, organizers asked New York Governor George Pataki to offer words of consolation and inspiration. Rather than craft words of his own to help give some meaning to this current tragedy, he instead stepped to the podium and read from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. As with Dwight D. Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter before him, Gettysburg was good context for a politician in difficult yet auspicious circumstances.
During the year after the World Trade Center attacks, those who sought to define the scope of the event continually compared it to Gettysburg. Perhaps not so much the Gettysburg that veterans may have remembered on July 4, 1863 — no one got up in Manhattan and spoke of James Longstreet’s tactics or Meade’s strategy — but rather a generalized idea that has come to mean something greater than just another historical event. A visitor to New York’s Ground Zero told a Denver newspaper reporter, ‘In my mind, it’s the same thing as visiting Gettysburg. It’s a battleground of freedom.’ A group known as the World Trade Center Living History Project seeks to memorialize the attacks of September 11 by recording the memories of the people who worked at Ground Zero in the aftermath. The group’s literature introduces its concept and mission by explaining that’scholars have weighed the position of the WTC attack in American history as rivaled only by Civil War Gettysburg in importance and scale of losses.’
The discovery of mythology where once there seemed to be fact might produce disillusionment with the study of history. If pure truth can only seldom, if ever, be ascertained, then what is the point of the pursuit? The answer is that there is a deep and highly useful knowledge that can be gained by studying the past and observing its processes, especially those that involve story building. While we may never know exactly which regiment was at a given point at a certain hour, the pursuit of this type of detailed information leads to an understanding of not only the events of the battle but also the process through which human beings create a record of the past. This knowledge, this awareness of the process and how it happens, is an invaluable tool in understanding nearly everything that humans have ever recorded.
While the details of how people constructed the Gettysburg story may vary from the history of the American Revolution, the Roman Empire or the Cold War, the basic processes are remarkably similar and are still operating today. From the Clinton scandals of the 1990s, the Florida presidential election of 2000, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, all of these tend to follow the same basic formula through which the collective human psyche envisions and understands the past. Each of these historical events has its Dan Sickles and Jubal Early, engaged in an almost daily struggle to see that the record left behind today is seen by the people of tomorrow in a particular light. Each of these has its budding mythology of sorts, framed in what media experts now call ‘talking points’ and’spin.’
Was George W. Bush fairly elected U.S. president in 2000, or was the election stolen from Al Gore? There is no factual, unassailable answer to questions such as these, and consequently a constant battle rages among supporters of both sides who seek to sway the popular opinion — and the history books — to one point of view or another. Whether Gore or Bush was ‘right’ is no easier to decipher than whether George Meade or Robert E. Lee was the better general — Meade won the ‘decisive’ battle, yet Lee is considered the better commander — and our perceptions of these issues are largely the product of the same kind of struggle between people to shape our view of the past. Today this struggle is greatly intensified by technological advances in communications. While it took John Bachelder nearly half a lifetime to create the idea of Gettysburg as the high-water mark of the rebellion, today a handful of e-mails and a website can create powerful urban legends in a matter of weeks.
Gettysburg has become as much a laboratory as it is a national historic landmark. Here one can study the ways in which people learn about the past and how they pass it along to others in an endless chain that is more often flawed than accurate. Here veterans carefully, persistently and sometimes inadvertently shaped the ‘factual’ record so that following generations would see the picture that they wanted them to see. Succeeding generations see the flawed record and shape it into something else before passing the story — now mythology — on to the next. There is still much to learn from Gettysburg. But instead of teaching us every detail about an event that is largely unknowable, what the place and its story can tell us is that we have a distinct and observable way of making our history. Learning more about that process, we can understand an immeasurable amount about our past, our present, and even our future.
From the book These Honored Dead: How the Story of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory, by Thomas A. Desjardin. Copyright 2003. Reprinted by arrangement with DeCapo Press, Perseus Book Group. All rights reserved.
Author Thomas A. Desjardin is a former archivist–historian for the U.S. National Parks Service and the author of Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine.
This article was originally published in the August 2004 issue of Military History. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!