When the fourth of July rolls around, you’re supposed to think of, I don’t know, the Constitution and backyard cookouts like in old Chevy ads—but for me, it’s really Gettysburg we’re celebrating. Greatest battle in American history.
But the battle, for me and millions of other war-nerd kids growing up on stories of Little Round Top, the fish-hook line, and what Ewell coulda shoulda woulda done at Cemetery Hill. My grandfather from my mom’s side, the more hardcore side of the family, used to mutter about “that man” who lost the war for us, “us” being the Confederacy, but he’d never say a name, so I grew up with this real downer of a notion that there was some kind of traitor in the ranks so plain evil you couldn’t say his name, like the bad wizard in those Potter movies.
Grandpa was wrong, I can say that now; Lee still could and should have won at Gettysburg by keeping to the rule he’d used, the same one most effective American commanders have used, from Bunker Hill to New Orleans: stay on the offense strategically but take the defensive tactically, rely on firepower and protected positions, don’t trade casualties with the enemy. In other words, no Pickett’s Charge. Bleed’em and leave’em, make Meade follow you up a ridge somewhere a few miles down the road and blast him when those poor boys in blue come walking up the slope. They say Lee had the runs, but to me the runs would make you retreat. What he ended up doing was more like malaria, some fever: “Why don’t y’all take a walk about a mile through the cannonballs and see if you can occupy that heavily-fortified position up the slope, boys?” They had a BBQ, all right. Free grapeshot for everybody. Not the smart way to use outnumbered elite troops. If you were going to do Pickett’s charge at all, the way would be—God, I’m going to get letters for this—to empty out the South’s lunatic asylums and put grey body paint on the loonies, make them the first three ranks, have them advance at bayonet point and absorb some of the grape.
Of course once you start down that road, you know, the possibilities are endless. Like, why not the old “human shield” technique? Lee had occupied a lot of Union land by that time, held the town—why not have a 3rd of July town outing, as in “You Yankee ladies git out thar in fronta us and tell your boyfriends in blue not to shoot at y’all so we can survive till we’re in bayonetin’ range.”
The reason they didn’t do that is simple: they didn’t play by those rules. This ain’t Liberia or Chechnya, and thank god for that. You know how many civilians were killed in the whole battle of Gettysburg? One. I dare anybody from any other country anywhere, any time, to find me a battle with over 50,000 military casualties—and one civvies died. One! It’s incredible. People don’t realize how amazing that is. Those were supermen, there’s no other explanation. You read their letters and they write in complete sentences, they even have great handwriting, even the paragraphs work.
I can’t honestly imagine fighting that way. Read too much about modern guerrilla war, I guess, but the only commanders I really understand down in my bones are Sherman, Quantrill and Forrest. Totally different species.
Sherman wasn’t even that good at classic battle-management like Lee or Jackson. Wasn’t his thing. What he did was strategic bombing, Curtis Le May before there was an air force. Bombing at ground level. Le May would’ve understood Sherman, and so would the Mongols. Nkunda would instantly understand Forrest. And Quantrill—he’s the universal language, everybody in the rest of the filthy world would get him.
William T. Sherman: A Crazier And Cooler Curtis Le May
But those weren’t the men who fought at Gettysburg. The fight at Gettysburg was the cleanest, finest fight ever in the world. That’s why I grew up just staring for like hours in hot afternoons in my room at those paintings. You know the Gettysburg paintings I mean? If you do, you probably know them the way I did before I started looking up stuff for this article: you know the paintings by heart but don’t much know or care who made them. As a kid I bet I could’ve drawn a decent replica of my favorite, the one with rebs and Yankees fighting hand-to-hand along a rail fence. I remember how the guy who painted it imagined the moment when the first line absorbs and infantry charge, the perfect way the main body of the attack is already sweeping past with the stars and bars high, but some of the Fed defenders have survived and a fraction of the Rebel attackers has to stop to deal with them, mop up. Every single hand-to-hand combat is so perfect. I remember there’s one doomed Union soldier fighting with his fists, rifle and bayonet gone, holding off a reb who’s trying to brain him with a gun butt. Another is skewering a confederate who’s just jumped to the top of the fence—I always liked that one, the idea of one tiny little success in a doomed fight; how would you feel if you just killed your first reb and looked around and realized your line had crumpled, the way so many Union lines did under attack in the first years of the war, and you were only going to get a few seconds to enjoy your win before you were shot or bayoneted or if you were lucky, sent down to Andersonville to die slow, starved to death by your own ex-comrades, who’d been turned into snarling stray dogs by starvation? That’d be a weird feeling, like being one of the few good soldiers in the Italian army, a kind of lonely, strategically insignificant bravery. (There were brave Italian units, by the way—a lot of them in WWI, and even a few in WW II, like the Alpini and Bersaglieri, the ones who fought the Brits in Eritrea for example).
You could spend all day in those paintings. All the matchups, bayonet on rifle butt on fist on pistol on cannon, all the ways you could die and kill in the finest battle in history. There were other battles I liked the paintings of, like Custer’s Last Stand, but you get a little older and the teacher makes you read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and you can’t be as thrilled at how cool Custer looks with his hat off, drawing a bead with that long revolver in the middle of a pile of dead pincushion horse soldiers. Custer was on the wrong side, the way the teacher told it. I know better than that now too, of course; there ain’t no better side in a war of extermination, and both sides in the Indian Wars knew damn well that’s what was going on. One was just a lot bigger and better-armed, and there was only one way it could end.
And other battles too, like Jackson at New Orleans, there’s always some nagging social-studies thing to pick at, “What about the slaves?” to bring you down. But not Gettysburg. The more you know about it, the finer, cleaner, more goddamn magnificent it was. One civilian killed, by accident at that, while she was working in the kitchen, a stray bullet. Just the two finest armies in the world—Europeans still don’t understand that either of those armies could have marched unstoppable from Liverpool to Moscow, a red-white-n-blue knife through moldy Euro-butter. (I’m not saying they coulda GOT to Liverpool, because the Royal Navy was the only military force that really did have a chance of stopping them.)
As a kid I never knew where those paintings came from. No, that’s wrong. I knew exactly where they came from: from those Bruce Catton books I soaked up instead of doing my homework or “going out and playing.” I was always getting that: “It’s a beautiful day, don’t just sit around reading!” Well it wasn’t a beautiful day, it was hot, for one thing. And I wasn’t reading. I was looking at those paintings.
Parents caught creating a future war-nerd
How did anybody ever get dumb enough to think that a few splatters on a canvas in a museum is art when you’ve got the paintings of Gettysburg to live up to? Hell, maybe that’s why art dissolved into dumb frat pranks like the abstract shit: because they couldn’t live up to the Gettysburg paintings, just like we aren’t fit to shine the busted brogans of the men who fought at Little Round Top, so we get all ironic and shit, because we can’t live up to them.
You look at these battle paintings and you see the artists were so into the story, what was actually going on, they didn’t worry about their fucking “style” or blurring everything up so the cool critics would think they were edgy. They painted as well as they could, so you could get a clear picture of what was happening. When people stopped doing that and started painting blurry and bad on purpose, that was when things went to Hell.
In the battle paintings you’re just there, on the field; you’re not thinking about the damn artist and his little ideas. You’re there, fighting for your life as the rebel flag sweeps by (just to spite my grandpa, I always imagined myself as a Union guy). And that’s where it really gets painful, a guy like me at Gettysburg. Oh, I’d hold the line, it wouldn’t be anything as simple as turning tail. But just imagine it, pushing the glasses up on my pig nose with the fat-sweat running down, dying of thirst—Pennsylvania in July—big belly bouncing along going “Ow ow ow” with the blisters on my flat feet.
Actually you don’t have to use your imagination. Just take a close slo-mo look on your DVD player when you rent that movie Gettysburg from 1993. Look at the extras from the reenactment societies, especially the rebs who break through the rail fence to storm Buford’s skirmish line, and you’ll see bellies wobbling out of their long johns like mine would. I don’t mean to make fun of anybody here except maybe myself; we’re fat because that’s how our lives are, and they were thin because they marched all day on next to nothing. But it still adds up to we’re gross and weak, and not fit to call ourselves their descendants. Like people like to say, it is what it is, and it ain’t pretty.
Just try imagining yourself advancing in formation with these rail-skinny real men either side. Not Hollywood thin, cocaine thin, but sleeping outdoors on weevil-biscuit rations for years thin, working all day on the farm from the time you could walk thin, men who meant every goddamn word, to the death, more serious than any grandpa you ever had and probably funnier too, when they had a second by the campfire, nineteen going on sixty.
And you know what breaks my heart? I can’t even find that painting on google now. I did a Google Image search for “Gettysburg painting” and most of them seem to be captures from the Gettysburg cyclorama, which sounds great but none of the close-ups are exactly the painting I used to have in the Civil War books I had. It seems to be gone. I don’t believe in much but I do believe in Google. If it doesn’t show up in the first ten pages of a Google Image search, it’s as gone as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And I couldn’t find my painting in those ten pages. And to me, maybe I’m superstitious, but to me that’s a real bad omen.
This “War Nerd” was first published July 7, 2009.
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