Monday, July 01, 2013

Over-Rated, but Inspiring Nonetheless

Today (with tomorrow and Wednesday) marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which, in addition to producing enough casualties to fill a cemetery, came to inspire an iconic political address, a memorable William Faulkner quote, an excellent historical novel, a mediocre movie, and an array of board and computer games. In his 1990 Civil War series Ken Burns called the three-day battle “the most important...fought in the Western Hemisphere,” which strikes me as exaggerated to the point of inaccuracy. I can think of at least two other battles, namely the 1521 siege of Tenochtitlan and the 1759 Battle of Quebec, which proved more important than any American Civil War engagement, insofar as they determined which European cultures would come to dominate the New World. Moreover, I don't think Gettysburg was nearly as decisive a battle as many Civil War buffs assume. William Fortschen, in the conclusion to the anthology Alternate Gettysburgs (2002), makes a persuasive case for the battle's strategic irrelevance: even if Robert Lee had defeated George Meade at Gettysburg, he would not have been able to go on and take Washington, as that would have required him to slog through several days of hard rain (which began the evening of July 3-4) and attack a well-fortified city defended by 40,000 federal troops. Perhaps a federal defeat at Gettysburg would have fatally undermined Union morale, but I doubt it, given that the Union would shortly learn of the surrender of Vicksburg (July 4), a far more important event. Today I think the Battle of Gettysburg remains important more for the political speech it inspired than the strategic reverse it inflicted on the Confederacy. If one were so inclined one could add a comparative remark about pens and swords, and which was stronger than the other.

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