In 10 days, with the arrival of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, Americans will again try to fathom an episode in our history that can defy comprehension. There are tens of thousands of Civil War books already in print, and a good number of them are massive, multi-volume affairs. For me, however, the best way to get a grip on our great national tragedy always has been to start small.
For nearly 20 years, I've led and participated in Civil War "staff rides," more than 50 of them at Gettysburg. A staff ride is a role-playing exercise, often used in military education. It lets a group of a dozen or so people walk where others have fought and get a sense of what combatants did and didn't know when the time came for a critical decision.
Gettysburg is the perfect place for this. It was probably the turning point of the war, and most Americans know its importance because of Lincoln's transcendent prose. More than that, walking its terrain today teaches you more than any history book about the real-life contingency and uncertainty faced by the Union and Confederate soldiers who fought here.
Looking up at Little Round Top--the hill that marked the end of the Union lin--the attack of the Alabama regiments from below, in the depths of the boulder-strewn Devil's Den, seems like madness, a Southern lost cause if ever there was one. But at the top of the crest, where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 300 men of the 20th Maine formed the extreme Federal flank, the defense seems like a very narrowly run thing indeed. When you stand in these spots, it's easy to imagine that either outcome was a real possibility. History pivots on a very small point.
These role-playing exercises also put you alongside the men in the middle, the division, brigade and regimental commanders who had to translate the generals' orders into action on the field. The cavalryman John Buford is one of the genuine heroes of the Union victory at Gettysburg. He was not only the first to arrive at the critical crossroads town, but he immediately grasped the lay of the land, the relative position of the two armies and how events might unfold.
Buford's story is well told in Michael Shaara's novel "The Killer Angels" and is given a compelling turn by the actor Sam Elliot in the 1993 movie "Gettysburg." But it was a mid-level executive in a large corporation who made me see the full extent of Buford's accomplishment. In character as Buford, he explained, "I needed to 'manage up,'" to persuade Gen. George Meade, the Federal commander, that he had to move forward from his prepared defensive line 10 miles south of Gettysburg. This skill—getting his boss to do what he wanted and to commit the company's resources—was one that the executive instantly recognized from his own work.
"This army has seen hard times," my corporate Buford continued. "Its 'stock price' is in the toilet. Meade and I have seen all kinds of idiots in charge, and we also know who's good. So when I tell Meade this is a good place to fight, even though he hasn't seen Gettysburg, even though I don't report directly to him, even though he's just five days on the job and in the hot seat, he takes my word. That's how stuff gets done right in a screwed-up bureaucracy."
For a professional soldier who takes on the role of Buford-at-Gettysburg, it's an opportunity to see a neat bit of tactical savvy. Buford's primary job was to scout and report, but he also needed to fight to preserve the high ground of Cemetery Ridge that formed the main Federal line of defense.
In particular, Buford had to slow the initial Confederate advance from the west, a task that involved repeated and subtle delaying actions along the rolling hills. Buford deftly employed his small command of dismounted horsemen and their fast-shooting carbines at each crest, retarding the approach of the more powerful and numerous Confederate infantry until the first Federal reinforcements arrived to open the three-day slugfest that followed.
As this role and others show, the terrain itself matters intensely. Driving tours are convenient, but there is no substitute for walking the ground at Gettysburg. Modern people barely see "terrain" in our lives: we fly over it or whiz through it in cars. A wood, a rise of 10 feet, or a 10-yard-wide creek pass without notice, but these simple topographical features were often enough to hide or immobilize an army.
Many Civil War battlefields have their "bloody lanes" or "stone walls." A supposedly impregnable defense or irresistible attack could give way in the blink of an eye, resulting in slaughter. It is hard to imagine how this could happen until you see the ground itself. But once you see it, those quick shifts in the tide of battle become chillingly vivid.
Our Civil War memorial parks naturally attract veterans, and a staff ride is an opportunity for a civilian to try to walk a short way in a soldier's boots. The lifetime paratrooper who explained Buford's tactics to me with clinical expertise tears up at the Antietam "Cornfield," where Joseph Hooker's men marched through rows of ripe corn in the mist of a September sunrise and were scythed down just as neatly. A Marine walking through the battlefield's "Sunken Lane" cannot block out the memories of those he fought with in Fallujah.
These sites are the most American ground, I think, even more than Yorktown or Lexington and Concord. Gettysburg, Antietam, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, the Wilderness and more—they are the places where the passion of our civil religion was played out.
Nine battles of the Civil War had casualties of more than 20,000 Americans. For the men who fought there, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness proved not to be self-evident truths but "made-evident" truths. Our freedom had a new birth. It is no wonder that, 150 years later, we continue to walk these battlefields, taking in a national enormity one fateful decision at a time.
Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at AEI.