Hard to believe but as recently as 1938 veterans of George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia embraced each other in the sultry summer heat of southeastern Pennsylvania at the site of the pivotal battle in the awful war that keep the United States a nation. The old boys in the photo had fought at Gettysburg in 1863 and showed up for the 75th anniversary of the battle in July of 1938.
What lives they must have led. As young men, boys really, they had participated in battle that both saved the Union and served as the High Tide of the Confederacy. They had lived during the time that Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated Custer at the Little Big Horn. Custer had lead his Michigan cavalry volunteers at Gettysburg. They had seen three presidents assassinated, the battleship Maine sunk in Cuba, the Panama Canal completed, the Great War fought, prohibition tried and abandoned and they confronted a Great Depression. All that history seen and lived and one suspects that the first three days of July 1863 were still the defining hours of their lives.
As historian Allen C. Guelzo, author of a respected new history of the battle, writes in the New York Times: “It took no more than a few days after the Battle of Gettysburg for the men who had fought there to realize how important it had been. ‘The Battle of Gettysburg, like Waterloo, must stand conspicuous in the history of all ages,’ wrote a staff officer, Frank Aretas Haskell, who himself would die less than a year later in a much less conspicuous battle at a place called Cold Harbor. And even by the most remote measure, Haskell was right.”
If the Civil War is the war that never ended, and in so many ways it is, then Gettysburg is the battle we can’t get enough of. Well more than a million visitors will tour the battlefield this year, new books and new scholarship continues to explore every aspect of the fight and during these first days of July “reenactors” swarm across into the little college town in Pennsylvania to “pay tribute” to those who fought and fell 150 years ago this week. (I admit to a life-long fascination with the Civil War as, in my view, the pivotal event in our history, but I find the reenactors, in all candor, to be just a little creepy. There was little or no glamour in Civil War soldiering and, while the history of the conflict is critical to understanding our country today, we are well served to avoid any myth making or romanticizing of the war and its meaning.)
Two years ago the Pew Center for the People & the Press undertook a major survey to gauge the Civil War’s impact on modern America. Fully 56% of those surveyed said they thought the war was still relevant to our politics and political life and, somewhat disturbing to me, 48% said the main cause of the war was “states rights,” while only 38% said the war had been mostly about slavery.
No less an authority than Abraham Lincoln knew that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery. As Lincoln recounted the foundations of the war in his famous Second Inaugural in March of 1865 he spoke explicitly of slavery. “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves,” Lincoln said, “not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
It is a testament to how completely the sons and daughters of the Old Confederacy prevailed in the post-war public relations battle that 150 years after the war, with all the intervening history of Constitutional amendments, segregation, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement and groundbreaking legislation in the 1960’s, many Americans still say the Civil War was – or should we say is – about “states rights.”
Think the Civil War is no longer relevant? Last week the United States Supreme Court made rulings in affirmative action and voting rights cases that, it can safely be argued, are a direct legacy of the war that never ended.
As Louis Menard writes in The New Yorker, “The [Voting Rights] act is celebrated because it was enormously effective in giving African-Americans the vote—far more effective than Brown was in integrating schools—and because it gave African-Americans something desegregation alone could not give them: political power.” Indeed.
The 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed in the days immediately after the Civil War, says it simply and yet eloquently. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” And then the phrase the Court seems to have overlooked, “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” In 1965 that “appropriate legislation” became the Voting Rights Act.
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., said in his majority opinion putting, as Georgia Congressman John Lewis said, “a dagger in the heart” of the Act by ending the so called “pre-clearence” provisions of the 1965 law. This provision requires the Justice Department to review proposed changes in election law before they take effect in the mostly southern states with a legacy of voting rights abuses. But in carefully cutting out that section of the landmark law could the learned Chief Justice really believe that race and efforts to limit voting rights are no long issues in America, even 150 years after that great battle in Pennsylvania?
As Menard notes in his fine piece The Color of Law, “The Times reported that one place eagerly awaiting the Court’s [Voting Rights] ruling was Beaumont, Texas, where the Justice Department has blocked several attempts by a group of white citizens to change voting regulations for the explicit purpose of unseating a black-majority school board. What’s so changed about that?’
As we think about the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, the 20th Maine’s bayonet charge down Little Round Top, the slaughter at Devil’s Den, the Virginians, Alabamans and Mississippians walking briskly to their death under George Pickett’s orders, we best also reflect on the notion that our country has changed, but also ask what must still change.
The country has changed, of course, in so many ways, but the fact that after a century and a half we still cannot agree on the cause of our great national trial is all the evidence we need – or the Supreme Court should need – to prove that we still have battles to fight to “prefect a more perfect Union;” battle to wage and win in order to guarantee full citizenship for those who still live the legacy of what Lincoln called our “peculiar and powerful interest.”