“It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” Robert E Lee
Too often we look at distant battles and campaigns in terms of strategy, operations, tactics, leadership and the weaponry employed. Likewise we might become more analytical and look at the impact of the battle or campaign in the context of the war it was fought, or in the manner in which the tactics or weapons used revolutionized warfare. Sometimes in our more reflective moments we might look at individual bravery or sacrifice, often missing in our analysis is the cost in flesh and blood.
The words of Guy Sager in his classic work The Forgotten Soldier about World War Two on the Eastern front is lost on many that study war:
“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”
In an age where so few have served in the military and even few have seen combat in some way shape or form many who study war are comfortable experts who learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. When I hear men and women, the pundits, politicians and preachers, that Trinity of Evil who constantly urge on others to go to war for causes, places or conflicts that they have little understanding of from the comfort of their living rooms or television studios I grow weary.
As a historian who also is a military chaplain who has seen war I struggle with what Sager said. Thus when I read military history, study and write about particular battles or engagements, or conduct staff rides as I will this weekend at Gettysburg the human cost is always present in my mind. The fact that I still suffer the effects of PTSD including night terrors and chronic insomnia keeps what I do in good focus, and prevents me from being a comfortable expert. Thus to do a staff ride, to walk the battlefield, especially in somewhat uncomfortable weather is a good thing. It connects us more in at least a small way to the men that fought there.
To walk a battlefield where tens of thousands of men were killed and wounded is for me a visit to hallowed ground. I have felt that at Waterloo, Verdun, Arnhem, Normandy, the West Wall, the Shuri Line, Antietam, Chancellorsville and of course the battlefield which I have visited more than any in my life, Gettysburg. There are times when I walk these fields that I am overcome with emotion. This I think is a good thing, for as an American who has family ties to the Civil War, Gettysburg in particular is hallowed ground.
Sisters of Charity on the Battlefield
The past few weeks I have been doing a lot of reading and writing on Gettysburg as part of my preparation for the staff ride. In my position as a Chaplain who also teaches Ethics and will be teaching more military history I cannot be a cheerleader. I try to be dispassionate in how I teach and while dealing with big issues that my students need to face as Joint Staff Officers. Some of these men and women will probably become Flag or General Officers. Thus I do feel a certain responsibility to teach not only the strategy and other important military aspects, but also the cost in human lives and ethical considerations. I take my work seriously. Like James Longstreet I have to ask “Why do men fight who were born to be brothers?”
As the sun set on the evening of July 3rd 1863 the battered Army of Northern Virginia and the battered but victorious Army of the Potomac tended their wounds, buried their dead and prepared for what might happen next.
Following the disastrous attack aimed at the Union center, what is commonly called “Pickett’s Charge” Lee and his surviving commanders prepared for an expected Union counter attack. However, George Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac who had correctly anticipated Lee’s assault decided not to gamble on a counter attack, though it was tempting. He knew too well the tenacity and skill of the Confederate commanders and soldiers on the defense and did not want to risk a setback that might give Lee another chance.
The dead and wounded littered the battlefield. Field hospitals, little more than butcher shops where arms and legs were amputated by overworked surgeons and attendants while those with abdominal wounds that could not be easily repaired were made as comfortable as possible. Triage was simple. If a casualty was thought to have a reasonable chance at survival he was treated, if not they were set aside in little groups and allowed to die as peacefully as possible. Chaplains made their way around, Protestant’s ensuring that their soldiers “knew Jesus” and Catholics administering the Last Rites.
Corporal Horatio Chapman of the 20th Connecticut Volunteers wrote about the the July 3rd:
But in front of our breastworks, where the confederates were massed in large numbers, the sight was truly awful and appalling. The shells from our batteries had told with fearful and terrible effect upon them and the dead in some places were piled upon each other, and the groans and moans of the wounded were truly saddening to hear. Some were just alive and gasping, but unconscious. Others were mortally wounded and were conscious of the fact that they could not live long; and there were others wounded, how bad they could not tell, whether mortal or otherwise, and so it was they would linger on some longer and some for a shorter time-without the sight or consolation of wife, mother, sister or friend. I saw a letter sticking out of the breast pocket of one of the confederate dead, a young man apparently about twenty-four. Curiosity prompted me to read it. It was from his young wife away down in the state of Louisiana. She was hoping and longing that this cruel war would end and he could come home, and she says, “Our little boy gets into my lap and says, `Now, Mama, I will give you a kiss for Papa.’ But oh how I wish you could come home and kiss me for yourself.” But this is only one in a thousand. But such is war and we are getting used to it and can look on scenes of war, carnage and suffering with but very little feeling and without a shudder.”
Colonel William Oates of the 15th Alabama whose brave troopers assaulted Little Round Top on July 2nd wrote:
“My dead and wounded were nearly as great in number as those still on duty. They literally covered the ground. The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks; the ground was soaked with the blood of as brave men as ever fell on the red field of battle.”
Another Confederate soldier describe the scene west of the town on July 4th:
“The sights and smells that assailed us were simply indescribable-corpses swollen to twice their size, asunder with the pressure of gases and vapors…The odors were nauseating, and so deadly that in a short time we all sickened and were lying with our mouths close to the ground, most of us vomiting profusely.”
Among the killed and wounded were the great and the small. John Reynolds who died on day one, Winfield Scott Hancock, the valiant commander of the Union II Corps wounded during Pickett’s Charge, “Mad” Dan Sickles, who had nearly brought disaster on the Federal lines by advancing to the Peach Orchard on July 2nd had a leg amputated. The Army of the Potomac lost a large number of brigade and regimental commanders including Strong Vincent, the young and gallant brigade commander who helped save Little Round Top, and young Elon Farnsworth, who had been promoted from Captain to Brigadier General just days before his death on the Cavalry field to the east of the town.
The Confederates suffered grievous losses. Divisional commanders like Dorsey Pender and Johnston Pettigrew were mortally wounded, John Bell Hood was severely wounded, Isaac Trimble, wounded and captured while Harry Heth was wounded. Casualties were even higher for commanders and the brigade and regiment level. The toll of brigade and regimental commanders that were killed or wounded was fearful. In Picket’s division alone all three brigade commanders, Kemper, Armistead and Garnett were killed or wounded while 26 of 40 Field Grade officers were casualties. 46% (78 of 171) of the regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia suffered casualties at the command level. The Confederate casualties, especially among the best leaders were irreplaceable and Lee’s Army never recovered from the loss of seasoned leaders who were already in short supply.
For some like Private Wesley Culp of the 2nd Virginia it was a final trip home. Culp had grown up in Gettysburg and took a job prior to the war in Virginia. In 1861 he enlisted to serve among his friends and neighbors. He was killed on the morning of July 3rd on Culp’s Hill on property owned by his uncle where he grew up and had learned to hunt.
One witness, Frank Haskell looked in at a field hospital in the Union II Corps area and wrote:
“The Surgeons with coats off and sleeves rolled up…are about their work,… “and their faces and clothes are spattered with blood; and though they look weary and tired, their work goes systematically and steadily on- how much and how long they have worked, the piles of legs, arms, feet, hands, fingers…partially tell.” (Gettysburg by Stephen W Sears, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, New York 2004 p.466)
All told between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans were killed or wounded during the three days of Gettysburg. Busey and Martin’s Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg lists the following casualty figures, other accounts list higher numbers. One also has to remember that many of the missing were killed but their bodies were simply never found.
Killed wounded missing total
Union 3,155 14,531 5,369 23,055
Confederate 4,708 12,693 5,830 23,231
Total 7,863 27,224 11,199 46,286
To provide a reference in 8 years of war in Iraq the United States suffered fewer casualties than during the three days of Gettysburg. It was the bloodiest single battle in American history.
At the end of the war, Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top who was well acquainted with the carnage of war asked the most difficult questions:
“…men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order–do we call it?–fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command that we heard, or His forgiveness that we must forever implore?”
May we pray for peace that such an event never take place again.