How could they?

Author: Barbara Turpin

My friend Mary and I had been on the road for 10 hours already and were anxious to get to our destination. As we headed east along the Chambersburg Pike, our eyes scoured the countryside for any sign of the park — it was a national park, after all, and one would expect signs — but there were none. All we saw were the fertile farmlands of southeastern Pennsylvania.

All of a sudden, out of the corner of my left eye, I spied a man on a pedestal, holding binoculars. Glancing to my right, I saw the barn familiar to me from a certain mid-19th-century photograph. As my foot pushed down on the brake pedal, my brain began to process the two images. The man on the pedestal holding binoculars was not really a man but a statue of Union Brigadier General John Buford, who first spotted the arrival of Confederate troops here on June 30, 1863, as they marched east down the Chambersburg Pike. The barn marked the location of McPherson Ridge, where Buford and his 2,200 cavalrymen tried unsuccessfully to hold off 7,000 Confederate infantrymen until reinforcements arrived.

No signs had guided us here, but we knew we’d reached our destination: Gettysburg.

My passion for the Civil War dates from my first viewing of Ken Burns’ documentary on the war that was aired on PBS in 1990. Over the years since then, I’d read many histories of the period. As part of a book group Mary and I belonged to, we read Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, which recalled the author’s travels throughout the South with a group of Civil War re-enactors. More than anything else, Horwitz’s book spurred me to plan my own tour of Civil War battlefields one day.

Since I’d planned to retire at the end of the 2010-11 academic year, and since 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, I thought, what better time to take that trip? So just six days after my last day of work at the end of May, Mary and I packed up our cameras and other belongings in a rental car and headed east for two weeks.

I had a general idea of what I hoped to accomplish on the tour. None of the books I’d read had given me a clear idea of what happened on the battlefields, and the maps were really inadequate. I also couldn’t figure out how generals, North or South, knew where to position their troops on a huge battlefield like Gettysburg, or, in an age without even walkie-talkies, how they conveyed their wishes to their subordinates. I wanted to know how the battles were organized and coordinated. I thought that if only I could see the battlefields, I could figure these things out.

The tour, then, began as an intellectual exercise, like completing a giant jigsaw puzzle. But that solitary statue of Buford, emerging so unexpectedly from an ordinary farm field, presumably on or near the spot where he first saw those Confederates marching down the Chambersburg Pike on that day almost 150 years ago, had a profound effect on me. It was as if Buford had suddenly stepped out of history to remind all visitors of what had happened here so long ago. I’d been so focused on battlefield logistics that I’d almost forgotten that I would be walking on hallowed ground.

Mary and I eventually did find our way to the Gettysburg National Military Park and its new visitor’s center, where we secured the services of Doug, a licensed battlefield guide, for a two-hour tour. For reasons that we never quite figured out, but for which we were both extremely grateful, Doug stretched out our tour of the roughly 6,000 acre park to five hours.

Doug took us to all the park’s notable sites, indicating to us the placement of troops around the battlefield on each of the three days of fighting and explaining how the generals communicated to their subordinates on the field. (They used flags.) But that information was no longer of interest to me.

Because by then I’d stood with Union Brigadier General G. K. Warren atop Little Round Top and understood, as he did from this vantage point, how critical that spot was to commanding the entire battlefield. And I’d stood where Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General George Meade had watched the progress of General George Pickett’s Charge on the third day, from opposite sides of the field, and understood how 5,600 Confederate casualties resulted. The nearly 12,000 men who stepped off from the woods that day had to march across a mile of open ground and scramble over fences, all the while being raked with fire from the Union-held Little Round Top on their right and Cemetery Ridge on their left.

I have no knowledge of military tactics or battlefield logistics. But it doesn’t take a West Point graduate to look out over that field and conclude that such a charge would be an invitation to slaughter. Surely the men who stepped off that day knew what they were getting into, and yet they went anyway. They went anyway.

Standing at the wall where Union forces repulsed the one small Confederate force able to breach the Federal line, a place known to history as The Angle, I couldn’t help but wonder how men could go on after a disaster such as this, how they could continue to march into battle and trust the leadership of their generals. It seemed inconceivable to me, and yet they did it.

My question was no longer how the generals did what they did on the battlefields, but rather why the troops continued to fight and die in such extraordinary numbers on both sides. Above and beyond what has motivated soldiers the world over since the dawn of time, I wanted to know why these men, the men who fought in the Civil War, went anyway.

Here are the numbers. At Gettysburg, out of the 150,000 men engaged in the three days of battle, 51,000 became casualties (killed, wounded or missing). Of the three million men who fought in the Civil War on both sides, 620,000 died of battle wounds or disease, during or after the war. This number exceeds the nation’s total losses in all of its wars from the Revolution through Vietnam.

I imagined that one of the reasons soldiers went anyway may have been the 19th century’s attitude toward death. Because medicine was so primitive, death was more prevalent. A third of all children born in the United States in the 19th century did not live to adulthood. And the sick or injured were usually cared for at home, where they died within view of their friends and families, not among professionals and shut off somewhere in a hospital or nursing home. This is not to say that people valued their lives less than we value ours; I mean only to say that death then was seen as normal and not as a medical failure.

But being more accepting of death is a far cry from volunteering for it, as these men did. That, it seemed to me, required a commitment to something higher. Both sides, of course, believed in the rightness of their cause, that God was on their side. But no sooner had my thoughts turned that corner, no sooner had the word “cause” entered my head, than all rational thought took flight. I understood that the cause for which they fought, whatever it was, was extremely important; it was what ennobled their self-sacrifice, elevating it above mere fatalism. But the very notion of a “cause,” any cause, caught in my throat, almost physically choking me.

While I could pity the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, as a cynical member of the Vietnam War generation, who learned to be wary of all grand causes since they often turn out to be nothing but grand delusions, and who wasn’t sure there was any cause worth killing and dying for, I couldn’t view them as anything other than poor deluded fools.

We moved on to other battlefields, but with each stop we were confronted with more carnage and more evidence of incompetence. In just 12 hours of fighting at Antietam on September 17, 1862 — the bloodiest day in American history — there were 23,000 casualties, more than twice the total Allied casualties on D-Day. In Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, Union General Ambrose Burnside threw his infantry against a firmly entrenched Confederate position on Marye’s Heights not just once or twice but 14 times. The result: 12,600 Union casualties. In July 1864, in the wake of an explosion under the Confederate line detonated by Union troops in an attempt to break the siege of Petersburg, those troops poured into the resulting crater to attack the Confederates instead of going around it, because their leader, Brigadier General James Ledlie, wasn’t there to direct them. He was rumored to be behind the lines getting drunk, and 3,800 Union casualties resulted from what one Confederate general referred to as “the turkey shoot.” My mind kept circling back to the question of what kept these men going.

Maybe it was the heat at Gettysburg that had fried my brain. The temperature on the battlefield that day had been 95 degrees, and we’d been out in that heat for five hours. Or maybe it had been the shock and the profound emotional impact of seeing the statue of John Buford rising from the earth out of nowhere that had caused me to forget everything I knew about the Civil War. More likely, it had been easier to see those soldiers as deluded fools than to see myself as a prisoner of my own historical circumstance. Whatever the reason that rationality had taken flight at Gettysburg, it returned during the subsequent two weeks of our tour.

The Civil War was not Vietnam, of course. It wasn’t fought halfway across the globe, in the jungles of a little country in Southeast Asia few Americans had even heard of, on behalf of a people who didn’t want us there. As our tour demonstrated all too well, it was fought right here at home, in our own cities and towns, on our own farmlands and along our own country roads, because of a contradiction between our principles and our practice, between what we professed to believe in — the equality of all — and the fact that four million of us, one in seven, were slaves. That house, Lincoln said, could not stand; to have believed otherwise — that we could survive permanently as half free and half slave — would have been delusional.

What was at stake in the Civil War was who we, as Americans, really were. We had a stake in the outcome of that conflict that we did not have in Vietnam. In addition, those who fought in Vietnam were primarily conscripts, not volunteers as they were in the Civil War; presumably, their motivations for fighting were different. In Vietnam, according to vets themselves, men wanted only to get out alive. And no one whose primary motivation was to get out alive would have followed Pickett across that Gettysburg field. No, the Civil War was not Vietnam.

So why exactly did Pickett’s men follow him? What possesses a person whose basic instinct is self-preservation to sacrifice himself? Civil War historian James McPherson addresses that issue head-on in his book For Cause and Comrades, which was inspired by what he saw with his own eyes on his first visit to Gettysburg.

Surprisingly, one really can’t say that military discipline is what drove them. Discipline on both sides during the Civil War was notoriously lax. Fully 50 percent of those eligible for the first Confederate draft in April of 1862 failed to sign up, with no consequence to them. And while desertion was widespread in both armies, execution for it was relatively rare. After serving briefly with the Confederacy, for example, Mark Twain spent the war years out west.

Nor can one say that Civil War soldiers were more unquestioning in obedience to orders than soldiers today. Their letters and diaries show just the opposite. In this very democratic, individualistic mid-19th -century society, privates thought they were just as good as officers and deserving of the same respect. They were determined to “have their rights,” they wrote.

In American society at the time, duty, honor, patriotism and the concept of manhood — most importantly, the need to prove it — were more powerful motivating forces than discipline and coercion. Also, because men from the same communities often enlisted together in the same units, peer pressure compelled them to fight instead of flee. And there was the “band of brothers” effect; they fought for each other, if not for anything else. Religious faith played a role as well, perhaps not so much in motivating them to enlist — although some soldiers called the Civil War a crusade — but in sustaining them in the midst of battle. These values are what kept men in the ranks long after the sense of glory or adventure for which many of them had enlisted had lost its luster.

Finally, I think that respect for and confidence in the leadership of Robert E. Lee, who had brought the Army of Northern Virginia unexpected successes at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, also propelled Pickett’s men across that field. Both they and Lee thought that under Lee’s leadership, they were invincible.

Above all, there was the cause for which they fought. In Vietnam, U.S. soldiers didn’t know what they were fighting for, and they couldn’t help but notice how tenaciously the soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army fought precisely because they knew what they were fighting for. As McPherson wrote, “It is impossible to understand how the huge volunteer armies of the Civil War could have come into existence and sustained such heavy casualties over four years unless many of these volunteers really meant what they said about a willingness to die for the cause.”

In the Civil War, there was no escape from the motivating power of The Cause. Some Union soldiers immediately saw the major issue at stake in the war as slavery and fought to destroy it. But many saw the conflict originally as one of law vs. anarchy, and only came around to seeing it as one over slavery toward the end of the war. Others, such as Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers, whose poignant final letter to his wife on the eve of the first battle of Bull Run was immortalized in Ken Burns’ documentary, fought to preserve the legacy of liberty bequeathed to them by the Revolutionary generation.

Some Confederates did see themselves as fighting to defend slavery, but most saw themselves as fighting for liberty, too — i.e., against enslavement by the North. Apparently, the paradox of fighting for their own freedom while holding others in chains was lost on them. The South, of course, also fought for home and hearth.

Finally understanding why Civil War soldiers went anyway wasn’t the reason I eventually changed my mind about them. During the two weeks after Gettysburg, I’d seen the landscapes of many battlefields, from Antietam to Fredericksburg to Petersburg, and having seen over and over again what those soldiers were up against, I developed an enormous respect for all of them, on both sides of the conflict, no matter what kept them going and whatever the cause for which they fought. Their fortitude on the battlefields we saw — so many of them D-Days in their own right — and in the face of either hubris or incompetence on the part of their high command, is simply astonishing, worthy of my respect and appreciation, not my scorn.

After the fall of Richmond and Petersburg in early April 1865, the chase was on as Lee retreated from Petersburg with Grant and his 120,000 troops in hot pursuit. The plight of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at this point was heartbreaking. The Confederacy had fallen apart and had no resources left with which to supply its army. Starving, exhausted from days and nights of marching without rest, barely clothed or shod, their flanks constantly harassed by Union troops and drawn homeward by pleading letters from loved ones, thousands of Confederate soldiers deserted.

Remarkably, 35,000 men remained with Lee. These men had no “country” any more, or perhaps Lee was their country and they were fighting just for him. Whatever their cause, while I did pity them for all they had suffered, as I’d pitied the men at Gettysburg, I no longer saw them as poor deluded fools.

Mary and I set out to follow Lee and the remnants of his once glorious Army of Northern Virginia from Petersburg all the way to Appomattox. When we first planned the trip, we thought that following the retreat would provide us with nothing more than a scenic drive. After seeing for ourselves the nature of this war, and the sacrifices made on both sides, we followed the retreat for a different reason: To pay our respects to the soldiers of both armies, who had fought so nobly and so bravely for so long.

And so for eight long hours, we followed the twists and turns of narrow, rarely traveled and often unmarked back country roads, through pristine Virginia farmlands, from Namozine Church to places with names like Jetersville, Deatonville, Rice’s Depot, Amelia Court House, Double Bridges, Holt’s Corner and New Store. It was like making the Stations of the Cross. But it wasn’t until I was standing in Wilmer McLean’s front parlor at Appomattox Court House, where Lee surrendered to Grant on Palm Sunday, 1865, that I fully realized what I had only dimly perceived two weeks earlier in front of that statue of General Buford in Gettysburg: what had begun as a tour would end as a pilgrimage.

Barbara Turpin, a former associate dean of Notre Dame’s Graduate School, retired in 2011.