Robert B. Simpson: A burning fuse

July 14, 2013 

The recent celebration of Independence Day seemed almost equally dedicated to marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. That anniversary is certainly worth noting, given the huge number of casualties among both Confederate and Federal forces in the battle, and given that it is generally considered to have been the turning point in the war.

For those interested in such matters, and I am one, Gettysburg offers a large number of areas for study, analysis, and agreement or disagreement with the military leaders of that time. General George E. Pickett has been made in popular history a sort of "goat" of the battle because of the infamous Pickett's Charge, although some hold Robert E. Lee to blame. Pickett never publicly blamed his old commander, even though Lee pretty much banished him from the Confederate Army not too long after the infamous charge. Later, when questioners tried to get Pickett to say the failure of the charge was the fault of General Lee, Pickett's sardonic response was, "I always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."

As an aside, I served first as a company commander and later as a staff officer under General Pickett's great-grandson, Lieutenant Colonel George E. Pickett IV, both at Fort Bragg and in the Dominican Republic. Although the Picketts were primarily a Virginia family, this one had been born in North Carolina, as was I. As we prepared for our first encounter with Dominican rebels, several of us engaged in a casual discussion of the Civil War. I mentioned to Colonel Pickett that our home state had lost more soldiers in that war than any other Southern state. "Yeah," he said, "most of them probably because of that stupid charge my old great-granddaddy led. But don't worry, men, I won't do that. If we can't outflank 'em, we won't mess with 'em." Evidently he'd inherited his old great-granddaddy's sense of humor.

Many years ago, my wife and children and I spent the better part of a Sunday afternoon traversing the Gettysburg battlefield. After we'd been immersed for a while in the sense of death that lingers just below the peaceful surface of the place, my wife said, "This is the first time I've ever felt like I was the enemy." I understood exactly what she meant. I'd stood on the battlefields at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Bull Run, and other lesser ones, and I'd always subconsciously been standing on Confederate ground and contemplating the battle from that viewpoint.

At Gettysburg I was an intruder, come up from the South to the place where the two sides into which my country had once split had crashed together in a cataclysmic battle, no holds barred, everything on the table, winner take all. For the first time, I felt the full shock of what could happen when a nation let regional, philosophical, economic, and ethical differences, mixed with false pride and bullheadedness, fester and become a malignancy that distorted and tore it apart.

When I was a youngster, I was relieved to know that the assassination of President Lincoln had taken place in the benighted past, long before my time. And the other presidential assassinations -- well, they'd also happened before we were as civilized as we'd now become. Surely such incredible wrongs could never happen in this country again. But they could. And did.

Likewise, I once believed the country could never again come apart at the seams as it once had. Now I'm not so sure. People in South Carolina, spiritual descendants of John C. Calhoun, talk again of nullification, the right of states to set aside federal laws with which they don't agree. The governor of Texas talks about seceding.

Ordinary Americans rage about "taking our country back" from other ordinary Americans. Most have little idea of the true harshness of war, but they happily play with the matches that can set off a new conflagration. Maybe not start another clash of arms in set battles on American battlefields. But condemn us, thoroughly estranged from each other so that we live in a state of continuing turmoil, hatred, and political inflexibility, to once again tear the country apart. Rip it apart as surely as if we once more divided ourselves into the Blue and the Gray and set off on the bloody folly that cost the lives of an estimated 750,000 soldiers and nobody knows how many civilians.

Maybe remembering the tragedy of Gettysburg is, after all, as valuable as honoring the glory that is the Fourth of July.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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