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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 7/8/19

War, Memory and Gettysburg

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Clark Edwards, a friend of Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, like Chamberlain and the New York politician and general Dan Sickles, would spend the postwar years elevating himself as an icon of battlefield heroism and use that image to further his political ambitions, which included an unsuccessful run for governor of Maine as the Democratic nominee. (Guelzo writes of Sickles, whose military incompetence nearly led to a Union defeat, that he "oozed sleaze and dissimulation from every pore.")

David Edwards, along with the other soldiers on Little Round Top, was acutely aware that Chamberlain's 20th Maine played only a secondary role in repulsing the Confederates. The Confederates were denied Little Round Top, an important piece of raised topography on the battlefield, because of the foresight of Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren and the alacrity and courage of brigade commander Gen. Strong Vincent and Col. Patrick O'Rorke, who commanded the 140th New York Infantry. But because Vincent and O'Rorke were killed in the defense of the hill, there was little impediment to Chamberlain's tireless revisionist accounts of the fight. Chamberlain, in addition to being awarded, like Sickles, the Medal of Honor, became the president of Bowdoin College and served four terms as the governor of Maine. He authored "seven accounts of Gettysburg," Guelzo writes, "giving himself the starring role on Little Round Top, and Little Round Top the starring role in the battle." Guelzo adds: "Mortality, and the ex-professor's considerable flair for self-promotion, vaulted him ahead of others."

It was the third brother, Albert, who would be at the center of some of the most savage fighting at Gettysburg, narrowly escaping death. He was at the time a captain in the 24th Michigan, one of five regiments in the Iron Brigade. He had attended the University of Michigan and been a newspaper reporter, an experience that helped make his official battlefield reports literate and at times moving.

The Iron Brigade was one of the most celebrated brigades in the Union Army, easily identifiable by the black "Hardee" hats its members wore instead of the blue caps typical of most Union troops. By the end of the war it would lead all federal brigades in percentage of deaths in battle. But the combat-forged hardness of its troops came with a cost.

My grandmother had the 1891 edition of "History of 24th Michigan of the Iron Brigade," which I now possess. It has a dried rose between page 234 and 235. I was haunted when I first read it as a boy not only by the horrific losses endured by the 24th Michigan in the first day of the battle, which left Albert in command, but by the execution of a deserter, Pvt. John P. Woods of the 19th Indiana, on June 12 on the way north.

"At about 2 o'clock the Iron Brigade led the column into a field, preceded by the prisoner sitting on his coffin," Sgt. Sullivan D. Green wrote in the history. "In silence, three sides of a hollow square were formed. The coffin was placed on the ground, the prisoner alighted from the ambulance with the chaplain who held a few moments' converse with the doomed man. ..."

Twelve soldiers were selected for the firing squad and issued muskets. One of the muskets had a blank.

"A handkerchief was placed over his eyes, and his arms and legs were bound," Green noted. "At the command 'attention,' the usual word of caution or preparation, they were to fire," Green wrote. "The hat [in the hand of an officer] was lifted -- 10,000 eyes were strained in one breathless gaze -- it was lowered, and many eyes withdrew from the sight that was to follow. The report of arms was heard and a lifeless body fell backward to the dust!"

Wood's wife was seriously ill. He had tried to go home to be with her.

On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Iron Brigade, heavily outnumbered by Confederates, attempted to hold the Union line at McPherson's Ridge. By nightfall only 99 of the 496 members of the 24th Michigan had not been killed, wounded or captured, a loss of 80%. Albert and two lieutenants were the only officers remaining on the field. The entire brigade had been mauled, reduced to 600 soldiers from the original 1,885. The survivors were repositioned on Culp's Hill.

I stood on McPherson's Ridge, the scene of the bloodbath 156 years ago that took the life of Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds. The shade of the towering trees and slight rustle of the leaves gave this isolated part of the battlefield a gentle tranquility. But by the end of July 1, 1863, the ground surrounding me was covered with Union dead and wounded, many of whom had to be abandoned in the slow retreat back toward town.

"Coming up in the wake of the attack he heard 'dreadful howls' in the woods on the ridge, and when he went over to investigate he found that the source of the racket was the wounded of both sides," Shelby Foote, writing in "Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863," said of Confederate Gen. William Dorsey Pender, who would be mortally wounded the next day. "Several were foaming at the mouth, as though mad, and seemed not even to be aware they were screaming."

My grandmother began her life in the shadow of one war -- the Civil War -- and her life ended in the shadow of another World War II. Her only son, my uncle Maurice, had fought as an Army infantryman in the South Pacific in World War II, in which he was wounded by a mortar blast. He returned a physical and emotional wreck, speaking little and retreating into a haze of alcoholism. I remember him as a distant, bewildering man, struggling with demons I did not understand. Like his great-grandfather David, he felt betrayed by his country, its generals and its politicians. Maurice mailed his medals back to the Army. Seated at my grandmother's kitchen table one morning, he told me about the time his platoon was drinking from a stream. When they turned the corner, they saw 25 Japanese corpses in the water. It was the only time he spoke to me about his experiences as a soldier.

His erratic behavior was mystifying to me. I asked my grandmother after he left what was wrong with him. "The war," she said acidly.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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