In times of distress, America is rescued by its homegrown heroes.
In 1863, with the country torn apart over the unresolved issue of slavery, the great armies of the North and South clashed along a three-mile front at a tiny crossroads town in southeastern Pennsylvania. We were saved by a few New England boys, led by (and this is strange for a Republican to acknowledge) a college professor.
A New Birth of Freedom
It started in May 1863 with the battle of Chancellorsville, in Virginia, where, after two years of bitter defeats, the Union army was finally positioned to surround and destroy Robert E. Lee's army, capture the Confederate capital at Richmond ... and end the Southern rebellion.
But Chancellorsville turned out to be Lee's greatest victory. As he read the telegraphed reports of casualties that eventually totalled 17,000, President Abraham Lincoln was heard to remark, "My God! What will the country say?"
Lincoln's fears were real. Public opinion in the North was turning against a war that was increasingly viewed as a tragic crusade to free distant black slaves who would only migrate north and compete for work.
The Confederate leadership understood this perfectly. So Lee marched his Army of Northern Virginia north into Pennsylvania, reasoning that sooner or later he would meet -- and defeat -- Lincoln's army. Northern politicians, revolting at the prospect of an unchallenged Southern army pillaging their towns and threatening their capitals, would force an armistice.
It came to within minutes of turning out that way.
Advance units of the two armies clashed at the crossroads town of Gettysburg on July 1. Lee's troops pushed the federal force south through the town, into defensive positions around a hill. During the night, legions of Union and Confederate troops converged on the area until, by morning, 85,000 Union troops faced Lee's army of 65,000 along a front extending three miles south of the town.
At the far southern end of the Union line stood two hills, named Little Round Top and Big Round Top. The former remains a popular stop on the Gettysburg battlefield tour today. From the Little Round Top visitors can view the entire battlefield -- truly an impressive sight!
But that probably wasn't the reaction of the Union general who stood there on the afternoon of the battle's second day. To the north he could see the line of blue already in combat with the attacking southerners. To the northwest he could view the annihilation of a federal contingent whose commander disobeyed orders and positioned his troops far forward of the Union lines. And to the west he could see, to his horror, a Confederate force surging forward to capture the undefended hill where he stood.
Four regiments were rushed in to defend the hill: the 16th Michigan, 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania and, finally, at the very end of the Union line, the 20th Maine, commanded by a 33-year-old Bowdoin College professor named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who viewed war as a test of character that "made bad men worse and good men better."
Usually in battles such as this the defending force had hours -- sometimes days -- to build up their positions with logs, rocks and trenches. Chamberlain's men had about ten minutes. So they took what cover they could behind boulders and trees.
By one officer's account, the attackers, battle-hardened Alabama men, breached the Maine line five times and were each time repulsed in a vicious 90-minute fight that was often hand-to-hand. When Chamberlain's men expended their allotment of 60 bullets, they crawled through the mangle of bodies, searching the cartridge boxes of the dead and wounded.
One by one, the men fired their last shot as the enemy formed for a final, decisive assault. As Chamberlain later recalled, his men looked back at him as if to say, "what now?"
At that moment, Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy were never closer to victory. Once they overran Chamberlain's tiny force, they'd drag their artillery up the hill, enfilade the three-mile line of Bluecoats in the open below, disperse the federal army and perhaps move southeast to threaten Baltimore and Washington. The Confederacy almost certainly would have gotten its wish -- a peace treaty -- something not even Lincoln could have forestalled. The Civil War would have ended with the Confederacy intact. And the map and history of the United States -- and of the Western world -- would be much different today.
But as we know, things didn't turn out that way.
Chamberlain coolly surveyed the scene. No ammunition, no support, no retreat, no options. Except one.
"Bayonets!" he commanded.
As if to lead the assault, Lieutenant Melcher of Company F charged toward the advancing Alabamans but it turned out that Melcher was chiefly interested in rescuing his trapped wounded men. Nevertheless, the entire regiment took up the charge. Half of Chamberlain's men were positioned at right angles to the main unit, in sort of an inverted "L" formation, to guard against flanking assault. They swooped down the hollow between the two hills, like a giant gate closing before an approaching stampede.
At that moment the survivors of Chamberlain's Company B, who had taken cover behind a stone wall across the hollow, opened fire on the Confederate right while the soldiers of the adjacent 83rd Pennsylvania trained their guns on the attackers' left.
Today we'd call it "shock and awe". A complete rout. Those southerners who weren’t shot or captured ran down the hill to the safety of their fortified lines.
Chamberlain and his men weren't the only heroes at Gettysburg that day (the tiny 1st Minnesota lost 80 percent of its men when they stopped another Confederate breach farther up the Union line) but nowhere were consequences of failure were so severe.
Today, when you drive up the hill toward Little Round Top, you'll see a sign that says "20th Maine Memorial" before you get to the top. Park there and walk down the trail to the little monument, on which are inscribed the names of the 38 Maine boys who died that day. From that point you can look down the ravine from where the Confederates surged. Across the hollow you'll see the stone wall where Company B found cover and then supported Chamberlain's charge. Look up the hill and you can see where the soldiers from the left came swooping down with fixed bayonets, like a great gate closing before a herd.
And then look down at your feet and think for a moment about where you're standing: on the very ground where the United States of America as we know it was saved, literally, by 357 Maine boys. Led by a college professor. These were the ordinary men who did the extraordinary in a crucial hour. And empowered the "new birth of freedom" implored by President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address four months later.
Think I'm exaggerating? Consider the consequences had the North quit the Civil War:
- The states of the Deep South, with an army to enforce their will, probably would have invaded Cuba and formed their own Caribbean empire, where slavery would have survived for decades.
- Texas might have declared its own national independence.
- The distant, fledging states of California and Oregon might have looked north, to Canada and therefore Great Britain, for protection from a newly-emboldened Mexico.
Imagine a 20th century without the industrial power of a vital and populous United States to oppose the evils of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism.
We can debate all the "what ifs" but one thing is certain: the survival of the United States has never been a sure thing. America has survived and flourished because of it's heroes: The men who signed the Declaration of Independence in the face of the advancing British army; the freezing soldiers who grimly followed General Washington across the Delaware and revived the all-but-dead Revolution; Washington himself, who rejected his officers' call for a takeover of the feckless Congress, and in so doing paved the way for the world's first true republic.
And finally, those desperate Maine boys on the hill at Gettysburg. They were out of ammunition and could see the enemy advancing toward them. Had they fled, their army and country wouldn't recover. Perhaps they sensed this. So they nervously glanced back at their young commander, whose character inspired them. And waited.
Historians view Gettysburg as the high-water mark of the Confederacy. Perhaps when the history of the early 21st century is written, the Obama presidency will be viewed as the high-water mark of the American Left. Hopefully this is how the story might be written:
By 2014 the national debt of the United States rose to $50,000 for each citizen, and the US economy was hobbled by a government grown beyond the capacity of the private sector to support it. The American Dream was being consumed by the public-spending carnival that indolent politicians wouldn't stop. And for the first time, Americans feared that things would be worse for their children.
Like Lincoln's army on that harrowing second day at Gettysburg, America once again needed heroes.
Into the breach stepped ordinary Americans, who took control.
They asked their friends and colleagues to donate money and to help; manned phone banks; walked precincts; carried petitions and held receptions in their homes. They traveled at their own expense to distant towns and counties, encouraging others to help. They sacrificed business opportunities and family time. And were often derided as ideologues, anti-progressive, cranks, zealots and eccentrics.
Along with the soldiers standing guard overseas, THEY WERE THE GREATEST AMERICANS OF THEIR TIME.
They led a political revival that elected politicians who stopped the bleeding and halted this nation's ruinous slide toward European stagnation. In so doing, they restored the American dream.
They demonstrated to the ages that the greatness of the United States lies not in its government but in the unique character of its people.
Thanks to them, America's best days lie ahead.