Tragic Heroes: Gouverneur Warren, Part One

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been writing about leadership the past couple of days and despite all that is going on in the news I think that I will continue to do so using some parts of my Gettysburg text. I think it is incredibly important to get to know the men and women behind iconic pictures, statues, and biographies that are often not much more than hagiography. In my studies I have encountered people who I find fascinating and not just because of their achievements but also due to their suffering. One of my seminary professors said that you could never come to grips with Jesus until you came to understand suffering.

That is important especially when we deal with men and women who have been traumatized on the battlefield, who when they return from war they come home changed. Many are great leaders and outstanding people whose courage was proven but their lives after the war can only be considered tragic. One of these is Gouverneur Warren, one of the heroes of the Union in the Civil War, and who was instrumental in stopping the Confederate forces at Gettysburg 0n July 2nd 1863. I have written about him before, but I think now is an appropriate time to revisit his life as well as some other men who fought alongside him at Gettysburg.

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

Warren

The Statue of Gouverneur Warren on Little Round Top


History, Memory and Myth at Little Round Top 

The battle of Gettysburg is an iconic part of American history. The accounts of Buford’s delaying action and John Reynolds death on July 1st, the savage battle at the Wheat Field, the Peach Orchard and Plum Run on July 2nd and the great charge known as Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd 1863 all draw us to the battlefield. The stories of individual courage and the sacrifice of soldiers from the North and the South that are enshrined on the monuments that now populate the battlefield have a nearly religious quality that draws Americans to Gettysburg by the hundreds of thousands every year.

But there are some places on the battlefield that seem to be the most iconic, the most spiritual, and the most inspirational for various reasons. Two of these places in particular have a nearly magnetic attraction, the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy on Cemetery Ridge where Pickett’s Charge met its end, and the rocky hill known as Little Round Top. A large part of the reason that these two places hold such an attraction is not just the way that the battle was fought.  Rather, it is often because of the way the stories of those actions and the stories of the men who fought at them have been passed down to us in the accounts of survivors, in history and even in the fictional accounts of the battle. In each of these stories there are elements of courage, devotion, sacrifice, and tragedy that touch us in deeply personal ways and connect us to them and what we see when we experience history tells us as much about us as it does them.

The story of the Battle for Little Round Top has been passed along to us in the many accounts and histories of the battle, but perhaps more importantly in literature and cinema through Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels and that book’s film adaptation, Gettysburg.  Many people who have never read an actual history of the battle know about the Battle for Little Round Top from Jeff Daniels’ inspirational portrayal of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the movie.

The mythic status that we accord Gettysburg is important to Americans as a people. It is a defining moment in our American story and that is why so many of us come to the battlefield. It is a part of who and what we are as a people. Chamberlain said this well a quarter century after the battle at the dedication of the Maine Monuments in 1888:

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls… generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” [1]

While the accounts in the novel and the film are certainly inspiring and allow us to experience the emotion and near spiritual sense of what Chamberlain writes about the battle, there is much more to learn. When we go beyond the mythic portrayal of the battle we find that despite the vast amount of information available that there are a large number of approximations and ambiguities in the accounts of the battle.  So as we endeavor to look at the actions of these leaders on that fateful day it is important to recognize that it is impossible for us to totally separate the actions of the men that helped decide the battle from the mythos that surrounds the story. [2] Likewise, it is important for us to acknowledge, that we cannot completely separate the character of these men and how they lived their lives from their actions on this particular battlefield and afterwards.

That understanding is important if we want to be able to interpret these men and their actions; actions that are recorded in their journals, after action reports, unit histories, individual diaries and letters, as well as the accounts of their contemporaries who served alongside them; accounts which for many reasons are not completely reliable.

As important as these accounts are for us in attempting to sort out the truth of the matter we must apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to them and we must interpret them. [3]  We have to do this because all historical accounts are influenced by the writer’s motivations, ideology or perspective. There are some authors who omit damning or damaging information, especially about their own actions, or the actions of those leaders that they wish to protect, and the writers that “spin” the event in order to build up or destroy the reputations of those present. Even those writers of the contemporary accounts of the battle who wrote their accounts with the best motivations and intentions to record the events as best as they could describe them were often prone to mistakes, even in details such as the time an event took place. The location of people during the event was limited by their physical position on the battlefield and what they could see amid the bullets and bombshells that created carnage around their point of observation. Those not present at the battle, the men who recorded their accounts based on the recollections of those present are similarly limited.

There is also another factor to consider in dealing with these accounts, especially when untrained observers make observations of the actions and behavior of others which seem strange or erratic to them. This is especially true of men who are writing about men who have experienced the horrors of war and combat which might have resulted in some sort of combat stress injury such as PTSD, brain injuries such as TBI or a concussive syndrome or experience which is now called Moral Injury. Thus when we examine the behavior of such leaders and see a marked change in the way that they deal with others after their experience of war, those conditions, unknown to their contemporaries must be considered as a possibility when evaluating their actions.

The problem for the historian or for that matter the writer of military doctrine is how to interpret the information that they have available to them to make it relevant and useful in the art that they practice.  This can be a daunting task with many associated pitfalls that is neither an inductive, nor a deductive process. David Hackett Fischer writes:

“The logic of historical thought is not a formal logic of deductive inference. It is not a symmetrical structure of Aristotelian syllogisms, or Ramean dialectics, or Boolean equations….Instead it is a process of adductive reasoning in the simple sense of adducing answers to specific questions, so that a specific “fit” is obtained. The answers may be general or particular, as circumstances may require. History is, in a sense a problem-solving discipline. A historian is someone (anyone) who asks an open ended question about past events and answers it with selected facts which are arranged in the form of an explanatory paradigm.” [4]

All this is important because it reminds us, that when we study these accounts and attempt to use them as a basis for leadership theories, operation art and strategy, or for any other reason, that all that we know to be “true” is a combination of fact, myth and spin. Our task is to do the best we can with that in mind while admitting that we all have our own prejudices, agendas and ideas that color the glasses by which we interpret the event and the actions of the people involved.

In a sense when we look at the records of the people present or their contemporaries we must entertain a fair amount of suspicion and be able to ask questions as if the writers were talking or writing to us presently. We must ask three questions to do this: Why are they telling this fact or story? Why are they telling it to me? Why are they telling it now? Or more succinctly put “Why this? Why me? Why now?”

Notes

[1] Chamberlain, Joshua Lawrence. Chamberlain’s Address at the dedication of the Maine Monuments at Gettysburg, October 3rd 1888 retrieved from http://www.joshualawrencechamberlain.com/maineatgettysburg.php 4 June 2014

[2] Note: My use of the terms myth, mythology or mythos should not be considered negative, and the use of the terms does not mean that there is not some degree of fact or truth in them. The definitions of the term mythos are important to understanding my use of the term here, first it denotes a traditional or recurrent narrative theme or plot structure of a story, and secondly a set of beliefs or assumptions about something. (See the Oxford American Dictionary.)

[3] I mention the term a hermeneutic of suspicion. Hermeneutics is the theory of understanding and interpreting language and non-linguistic expression. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it this way: “The term hermeneutics covers both the first order art and the second order theory of understanding and interpretation of linguistic and non-linguistic expressions. As a theory of interpretation, the hermeneutic tradition stretches all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy. In the course of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, hermeneutics emerges as a crucial branch of Biblical studies. Later on, it comes to include the study of ancient and classic cultures.” 

[4] Fischer, David Hackett Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought Harper and Row, New York 1970 p.xv  

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, mental health, Military, PTSD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s