A new birth of freedom

Bill Bennett
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Posted: May 30, 2006 12:01 AM

 Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last week. The book can be purchased here.

Robert E. Lee moved north once again in late June 1863, pushing hard into Pennsylvania. With crisis looming, Lincoln accepted the petulant resignation of General Joe Hooker. He turned to General George G. Meade, a native of the Keystone State. Lincoln hoped that Meade could be relied upon to "fight well on his own dunghill."

When Lee encountered the federal main force at Gettysburg, he
resolved "to whip them." Lee was hampered by the absence of his great cavalry commander, General James Ewell Brown (J. E. B.) Stuart. Stuart had once humiliated the federals by riding completely around them. Now, he was ranging too far away, capturing badly needed Union supply wagons, but leaving Lee "blind" as to his enemy’s movements.

Confederate Generals Stuart and George Pickett had long since captured hearts throughout the South as dashing Cavaliers; the former sported a full red beard, an ostrich plume in his hat, and a brilliant red sash around his middle, while the latter
wore his hair shoulder-length in perfumed ringlets. Pickett was the last man in the West Point class of 1846 (an appointment gained for him, ironically, by Congressman Abraham Lincoln), but he made up for his dismal academic standing by his bravery and energy.

A Union officer, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at thirty-four was tall and lean with a flowing mustache. He was a professor of classics in civilian life. He could speak eight languages—English, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew, French, and German. It is doubtful any other man on the field that day was so learned. But many fine minds and brave hearts threw their bodies into the breach on those disputed grounds.

Commanding the Twentieth Maine, Chamberlain knew he had to hold Little Round Top on the field at Gettysburg. If the Confederates gained that high point, they could pour artillery fire down onto Union troops below and very likely win the battle—maybe the war.

Chamberlain summoned his Maine farm boys and fishermen to hold off the rebel attack. His company had already lost a third of its men, and he had already been slightly wounded twice during the battle. Facing yet another attack, Chamberlain would later recall, "[M]y thought was running deep. . . . Five minutes more of such a defensive, and the last roll-call would sound for us. Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it but to take the offensive. I stepped to the colors. The men turned toward me. One word was enough—'BAYONET!' It caught like fire and swept through the ranks."

When his soldiers ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain could honorably have surrendered. Instead, he led his yelling men down from the heights of the Little Round Top, swinging about like a great gate on a hinge. Chamberlain drove the startled Alabamians before him. For his actions that day, the young Mainer was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Union lines wavered as General Meade’s forces were being hardpressed in the Rose family farm and The Wheatfield. Meade was determined to hold. He ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to support the Third Corps. Among General Hancock’s seasoned troops were the soldiers of the famous Irish Brigade. Under their brilliant green flags with their distinctive harps, these Fighting Irish prepared to go into action. Before turning to meet their foe, they turned to their priest for absolution. Standing on a boulder overlooking the earnest, upturned faces, Father William Corby gave the men his blessing. Then he warned them: "The Catholic Church refuses Christian burial to the soldier who turns his back upon the foe or deserts the flag." Today, a monument to Father Corby stands on the boulder where he pronounced those words.

One Irish officer who missed Father Corby’s blessing was Colonel Patrick H. O’Rourke. He had graduated first in his class at West Point, just two years earlier. Paddy O’Rourke had bounded off his horse and was leading his Sixteenth Michigan with a hearty shout of "Down this way, boys!" as he was struck in the neck by a rebel bullet and killed. A New York soldier who came upon the pitiful scene said that "that was Johnny’s last shot." Companies A and G vied with each other to take down the beloved Paddy’s killer. That "Johnny Reb" was hit seventeen times.

After two days of fierce fighting (July 1 and 2) in the stifling heat of a Gettysburg summer, Lee determined to attack the main body of the Union line. General James Longstreet opposed the move, recalling perhaps the devastation of the Union forces at Maryes’ Heights at Fredericksburg. But such was Marse Robert’s prestige that no one had the courage to challenge his judgment. Seeing a startled rabbit run off the road, a "Southron" responded with grim good humor. "Run, ol’ hare," the soldier yelled to his brothers lined up in a clump of trees awaiting the order to advance. "If ah was a ol’ hare, ah’d run, too."

When Pickett led his now-famous charge, rank upon rank of Confederates in gray and butternut brown marched straight into the teeth of the Union artillery. And they were cut to pieces. Thousands of men died in mere minutes. Union riflemen behind stone walls were completely protected. They marveled at the magnificent sight of the advancing Confederates. As Pickett’s charge failed, it broke like a great wave ebbing against the rocks. The cry went up from the Union lines that had held fast: "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" Then the sky was rent with a deep, satisfied roar from the Union ranks. They had saved their country, and they knew it. For the rest of their lives, these Union veterans would pay tribute to the sheer courage and unquestioned dedication of the soldiers in gray.

"Too bad, oh, too bad," cried Robert E. Lee in anguish as the tattered remnants of Pickett’s division staggered back to their lines. He rode out to tell his men, "It’s all my fault."

Instantly, he wired President Davis his resignation. Just as quickly, it was rejected. Lee was that rare figure in war—loved, even worshipped, by his soldiers, revered by the people of the South and deeply admired by nearly all his adversaries in the North. "I wish he were ours,” said a young Pennsylvania girl who saw him on his ride to Gettysburg. She spoke for millions in the North. Lee had denounced slavery as "a moral and political evil." He had even spoken against secession: "The framers of our Constitution never exhausted so much labor, wisdom, and forbearance in its formation if it was intended to be broken by every member of the [Union] at will. . . ." Still, when Virginia seceded, Lee could see no other course than to support his state. Hundreds of thousands of brave and honorable Southerners reasoned the same way.

The First Minnesota Volunteers had been in every major battle of the Union Army. They played a conspicuous part at Gettysburg, too. They tried, but failed, to capture a rebel flag, following the orders of General Winfield Scott Hancock. In just fifteen minutes of intense action, they suffered 68 percent casualties. After the battle, Minnesotan Sergeant Henry Taylor recorded how he learned of his brother Isaac’s fate:

About 8:30, Mr. Snow of Company B tells me thinks he saw my brother, and I accompany him to the spot, and I find my dear brother dead! A shell struck him on the top of his head and passed out through his back, cutting his belt in two. The poor fellow did not know what hit him. I secured his pocketbook, watch, diary, knife, etc., and with Wm. E. Cundy and J.S. Brown buried him at 10 o’clock a.m., 350 paces west of a road that passes north and sought by the house of Jacob Hummelbaugh and John Swisher (colored) and equi-distant from each, and by a stone wall where he fell, about a mile south of Gettysburg. I placed a board at his head on which I inscribed:

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Nor in sheet nor in shroud we bound him,
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his shelter tent around him.

Henry filled in the last entry in his brother’s diary: "The owner of this diary was killed by a shell about sunset July 2, 1863—his face was toward the enemy." The entry was dated—4 July 1863—fourscore and seven years after the birth of the nation for which young Isaac laid down his life.

For the defeated Confederates, this was a most mournful Independence Day, especially since some of them had come to speak of the war as the Second War for Independence. On the blood-soaked roads of Pennsylvania, in a drenching rain, Lee’s beaten army limped away. Dispirited and expecting a federal attack at any moment, the Army of Northern Virginia rushed to cross the rain-swollen Potomac. Lincoln was desperate for Meade to close with Lee and put an end to the rebellion. When Meade issued an order congratulating him men for driving "the invader" from our soil, Lincoln cried out: "Will our generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil."

On this same July 4 came an electrifying message from the West. General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the surrender of the city of Vicksburg. Grant conducted a smart, hard driving campaign against indecisive and divided Confederate defenders. Vicksburg commanded the heights over the Mississippi River. It was a strategic outpost. One of the Confederate leaders was General John C. Pemberton, actually a Philadelphian who had joined the Southern ranks because he married a Virginia lady. This was a war, after all, in which brother fought against brother, father against son. Dashing Confederate cavalryman J. E. B. Stuart scorned his Virginia father-in-law’s decision to remain on duty with the "old Army"—the U.S. Army. "He will regret it only once," Stuart said, "but that will be forever."

Grant had begun his drive with some hesitation. Rebel hero Nathan Bedford Forrest had bedeviled the Union forces. Forrest had been a slave trader and rich plantation owner before the war. He rose from private to general, the only Civil War soldier on either side to do so. And he did it without important connections in Richmond.

"That devil, Forrest," as Sherman called him, was a major obstacle to Union army movements in Tennessee. Once surrounded, Forrest ordered an attack in both directions and succeeded in breaking out. Another time, Forrest grabbed a Union soldier, pulled him up on his horse, behind his saddle, and used the unfortunate man as a human shield to protect himself from Yankee bullets. Forrest had thirty horses shot out from under him during the war—and killed thirty-one men. After the war, he boasted, "I was a horse ahead at the end.”

Grant had distinguished himself for bravery in the Mexican War. But then, he did not have responsibility for an army. Now, he was a general. He would later describe his feelings in his first taste of real combat while in command:

As we approached the brow of the hill from which it was expected we could see [the Confederate] Harris’ camp, and possibly find his men ready formed to meet us, my heart kept getting higher and higher until it felt to me as though it was in my throat. I would have given anything to have been back in Illinois, but I had not the moral courage to halt and consider what to do; I kept right on. When we reached a point from which the valley below was in full view I halted. The place where Harris had been encamped a few days before was still there and the marks of a recent encampment were plainly visible, but the [Southern] troops were gone. My heart resumed its place. It occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before; but it was one I never forgot afterwards. From that event to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy.

Here we may see the secret of Grant’s success: his unadorned style, so clear, so candid, his deadpan humor, his realistic view of himself and others. Above all, we see Grant’s self-deprecating wit and his bulldog determination: "I kept right on." After months of Grant’s siege, the starving Mississippians gave up. (Vicksburg would not celebrate the Fourth of July again until 1942!) The city’s fall gave control of the Mississippi River to the Union—splitting the Confederacy in two. U. S. Grant! Could anyone have had more symbolic initials? And to have united the upper and lower Mississippi River on the nation’s birthday made an indelible impression on the American people. President Lincoln wrote, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

Back East, the mood was not so celebratory. President Lincoln had hoped for, prayed for General Meade to take the unconditional surrender of Lee’s army in Pennsylvania just as Grant had totally conquered Vicksburg in the West. It was not to be so. Robert Todd Lincoln had never seen his father cry. But Abraham Lincoln wept bitter tears in the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg. He could not believe Meade was allowing Lee to escape. Lee’s retreat was even blocked by the rain-swollen river and still Meade did not descend upon him to crush the rebellion once and for all. Porter Alexander, the Confederate artillery chief, described Meade’s desultory pursuit: "As a mule goes on the chase of a grizzly bear—as if catching up with us was the last thing he wanted to do."

Lee did escape and Lincoln did not remove Meade. Meade—called "a goggle-eyed old snapping turtle" by his men—thought himself ill-used by an ungrateful commander in chief after so great a victory. He submitted his resignation. Lincoln immediately wrote a reply which, although he never sent it, reveals so much of his anguish:

Again,my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

Not only does this unsent letter show Lincoln’s deepest yearning to put an end to the bloodletting, but it also reveals his keen strategic sense. Lincoln had become the best strategist either side produced during the Civil War. He alone understood from the earliest days that the destruction of Lee’s army—and not the capture of Richmond—was the primary objective of Union arms. Where others panicked as Lee invaded the North in 1862 and 1863, Lincoln saw it as a heaven-sent opportunity to cut Lee off from his base of supply and to capture his ragged army of barefoot warriors.

"If I had gone up there, I could have whipped them myself," Lincoln told his young secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay. In this instance, however, Lincoln may have been wrong. The task of pursuing and crushing Lee’s defeated army surely looked easier from Washington than it did to General Meade on the ground at Gettysburg. If Meade had launched a counterattack to finish off Lee’s retreating ranks, he might have been the one surprised. Confederate General James Longstreet rode out after Pickett’s failed charge to inspect. "Old Peter,” as he was called, was taking a big chance. This was exactly what Stonewall Jackson had done after his great victory at Chancellorsville two months before—and paid for it with his life.

Old Peter was surprised to find an artillery battery in place, after he had ordered all his guns pulled back. "Whose are these guns?" he demanded to know, scowling. A pipe-smoking rebel officer came up to the general and answered mildly, "I am the captain," the officer replied. "I am out here to have a little skirmishing on my own account, if the Yanks come out of their holes."

Lee had taken great care—as he did in most things—to prepare his line of retreat. But he could not compensate for the terrible losses to his officer corps. In the three days of Gettysburg alone, Lee had lost seventeen of fifty two generals—nearly a third of his finest officers. This could not last. And Lee knew it. So did others.

Lieutenant Colonel Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, a British officer of Queen Victoria’s Coldstream Guards, was an observer with the Army of Northern Virginia. Watching Pickett’s men stream back from their failed charge, he said: "They will never do it again." He asked his Confederate friends: "Don’t you see your system feeds upon itself? You cannot fill the places of these men. Your troops do wonders, but every time at a cost you cannot afford."

Robert E. Lee understood this. But he was also an avid reader of Northern newspapers. He was well aware of the war weariness of the Northern people. He knew, too, of the outright opposition of many Northern politicians to the war. If only, Lee reasoned, if only he could win some striking victory—especially one deep in Northern territory—the people of the North might cry out for peace. Some of the Democratic politicians in high offices did exactly that.

Lee was George Washington’s stepgrandson-in-law. He knew as well as any man in America how Washington had fought many a losing battle only to triumph in the end. Yorktown had been that decisive victory that convinced a war-weary British public they could never subdue America. Lee constantly hoped that he could keep his ragged army going and make the cost of putting down the rebellion too high for the people of the North to bear.

This may explain his determination to win a major battle on Northern soil. He had won spectacular victories in Virginia. Fredericksburg was a triumph. Chancellorsville is still studied in military colleges as a textbook example of courage and skill.

Lincoln in these days began to appreciate what General Meade had accomplished. The people of the North rejoiced in the Gettysburg and Vicksburg victories, and the president seemed to share in their mood. After days of distress, Lincoln sent a dispatch intended for Meade’s eyes. This time, he said: "A few days having passed, I am now profoundly grateful for what was done, without criticism for what was not done. General Meade has my confidence as a brave and skillful officer, and a true man."

George Gordon Meade would command the Army of the Potomac until the last day of the war.

Lincoln contacted Grant in the same days. Noting that he’d never even met his western commander, Lincoln telegraphed: "I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.” Presidents are not always known for such grace, such affecting humility. Not only was Grant a man he’d never met, he was also very possibly a rival for the presidency in 1864!

Despite the victories, Lincoln’s immeasurable distress would soon deepen. Within days of winning the ground at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, New York City erupted into the worst riots in U.S. history. The draft—conscription—was widely hated in this city of immigrants. Poor Irish laborers had no way to pay the $300 that exempted a man from service in the Union army.

They lived in crowded, ill-lit tenements. Even their low wages and lowskilled jobs were threatened when Yankee Protestants employed free black stevedores as strikebreakers. The promises of American freedom seemed hollow to these struggling immigrants. New York Governor Horatio Seymour had attacked the Lincoln administration’s emancipation and conscription policies in a demagogic Fourth of July speech to city Democrats.

When conscription officers began drawing names for the draft on July 11, it was the spark that kindled the flames of rebellion. Mobs attacked black people, lynching six black men and burning a colored orphanage. The editor of the New York Times had to defend his offices by installing three newly invented Gatling guns.

Archbishop John Hughes had loyally traveled to Europe to stave off recognition of the Confederacy by Catholic powers even as he warned against making the war an "abolition war." Now, as rioting began, the archbishop and his Irish priests appealed to their flocks for order. And New York’s Finest—its fearless police force (also largely Irish)—battled the rioters. The police were overwhelmed as hundreds died. Only when troops from Pennsylvania’s battlefield arrived in the city was the worst race riot in American history finally put down.

Unfair as it was, the draft proceeded because the government could not afford to let the opposition prevail. It is a tribute to Lincoln that he did not clap Governor Seymour in prison for inciting the riot.

When the civic leaders of Pennsylvania decided to dedicate a military cemetery at Gettysburg, they sought America’s greatest orator as their leading speaker. Edward Everett, former president of Harvard, former U.S. secretary of state, was the natural choice. Republican Governor Andrew Curtin was then in a tough reelection race and a major event commemorating the battle could only help him. The battlefield, though, was still a scene of horror three weeks after the battle.

The young Gettysburg banker, David Wills, who was to chair the event, reported to the governor: "In many instances arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude and my attention has been directed in several places where the hogs were actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them."

Simply to bury the dead among the 22,807 Union and 28,000 Confederate casualties was an overwhelming task. Once Everett had confirmed as the day’s primary orator, President Lincoln was asked to make "a few appropriate remarks." The event was viewed primarily as a state occasion.

Since Washington was only ninety miles away, the president was asked, almost as an afterthought, to attend. Everett had been the vice presidential running mate on the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860 with John Bell. In effect, event organizers had invited one of the president’s opponents and had given him star billing. They also invited New York’s Democratic Governor Horatio Seymour, whose state had contributed so much to the victory. Lincoln’s "remarks”were never thought of as an address before he delivered them. Now, when it is recognized as one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the English language, it is the Gettysburg Address that comes to mind whenever the word address is used:

Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here, Lincoln speaks of no North, no South, impugns no man’s motives, makes no charges, sounds no note of triumph. But he explains in 266 spare words the meaning of the war. And his words will live as long as the idea of America lives.

Nor did Lincoln "refound" the nation. He did not remake America. He would have rejected such a notion. Every act of his was simply an effort to defend "the proposition" that had been central to the Founders’ vision. If all men are not created equal, then they have no God-given right to freedom and no claim to self-government. For Lincoln, this was axiomatic.

Happily, the very Honorable Edward Everett recognized the genius of Lincoln’s speech. He sent the president this gracious note shortly afterward: "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."