As generations change, so does historical relevance

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July 1 marks the 146th anniversary of one of the most significant battles in American history, one which dominated our national consciousness for many decades.

Yet the anniversary will pass unmarked, and many remember the battle only for the speech that it inspired.

The Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought July 1-3, 1863, marked the turning point of the Civil War.  The Union forces, under Gen. George Meade, defeated Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army, and ended Lee’s attempt to advance so deeply into the northern states that Lincoln might have been forced to abandon the war.

Both armies incurred losses that, to our modern sensibilities, seem incomprehensibly great — 71,000 Confederates faced 94,000 Union soldiers. At least 10,000 soldiers died on the battlefield, 30,000 were wounded, and 11,000 were captured or missing.  Of the wounded, many died within days or weeks of the battle.

And although Gettysburg was the war’s turning point, the combatants fought on for two more years. The casualties at Gettysburg were horrendous — but in the war’s context, they were neither surprising nor even particularly terrible.

The Civil War was America’s bloodiest conflict, claiming more than 620,000 lives. Engagements such as Shiloh, the Wilderness and Chickamauga resulted in losses comparable to those at Gettysburg.

And, unlike subsequent wars, general officers were in harm’s way. Commanders were in the midst of battle, as likely to fall as any common soldier. Twenty-nine generals fell on the battlefields of the Civil War, a toll greater than the total of every subsequent American conflict.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the history of the Civil War dominated the textbooks from which I learned American history.  It was still common for schoolchildren to memorize the Gettysburg Address.

No student could pass through the Colorado Springs school system without taking a course in American history — and every course in American history put the Civil War at front and center.

That’s no longer the case. In elementary, secondary and higher education, the Civil War is no longer a defining narrative, no longer critical to this generation’s understanding of what it means to be an American.

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs offers nearly a hundred courses in history, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Only two, both available to candidates for a master’s degree in history, are solely concerned with the Civil War.

That’s not because the course catalogue is loaded with politically correct fluff.  To the contrary, the curriculum is demanding, far-reaching and thoughtful.  There are courses that deal with China, with India, with Asia, with Latin America, with the American West and with Africa.

That wasn’t true during the late 1950s. The world seemed small, and America loomed large.

China was closed, impoverished and economically irrelevant. India was friendly, mysterious, poor and irrelevant. The Soviet Union was dangerous and incomprehensible. Latin America was quaint and irrelevant. Africa was exotic and irrelevant. Indonesia — was that an actual country?

As we were constantly told, ours was a fortunate generation — coming of age in the richest, most powerful and most democratic of nations.  If we were to learn any history at all, it should be ours — the rest, as Henry Ford had said dismissively, was “bunk.”

As the relevant world expands, Gettysburg recedes into history, as remote as Cannae, Salamis or Waterloo. The stage is larger, the cast of characters grows and what was once important is now diminished.

Lincoln said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

The opposite is true. Two years after the Gettysburg Address, Sen. Charles Sumner, eulogizing Lincoln, said that, “The battle itself was less important than the speech.”

But those who survived the killing fields of Gettysburg knew that they had witnessed and created history. Many were compelled to share their experiences, through letters, memoirs or conversations with family members.

Haunted by his experiences, John Gill, my paternal great-grandfather, published such a memoir during 1904, titled “Reminiscences of Four Years as a Private Soldier in the Confederate Army.”

Gill, then 20, enlisted in the Confederate Army on May 17, 1861, as did his younger brother and his first cousin. Of the three boys, only Gill survived, fighting in every major battle.  He writes of the unspeakable with understated eloquence.

As Lee’s army withdrew from Gettysburg on the night of July 4, Gill wrote:

“… We were deployed in front of Ewell’s line as pickets, to remain in our saddles until relieved. Those of us who were there will never forget that night. The dead had been exposed to the broiling sun for more than 24 hours, and had already turned black.

“To add to the horror of the scene, and the cries and groans of dying men, in the midst of whom we stood, a terrible thunder and lightning storm broke over the battle-field … as each of us stood at his post, with pistol in hand, the lightning flashed in our faces casting shadows on the dead strewn around us.”

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.