I will be watching the second half of Ted Turner’s Gettysburg today. It depicts the third day of battle, on July the 3rd, when Robert E. Lee sent 12,000 men across a mile of open ground to assault Union troops atop a ridge in fortified positions. The result was a bloody slaughter, and the beginning of the end for the Confederate army, and cause.
However trite the phrase, the battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the American Civil War. Before Gettysburg, the Union had not won a battle. Afterwards the South was never able to mount a serious challenge to the Union army, and the war settled into a bloody stalemate. In its last 18 months the war resembled the First World War to come, with the Union engaging in assault after assault against entrenched Confederates, until Grant laid siege to Lee’s army, and essentially starved them out.
Half a million American men and boys died in that war, and countless others were wounded. Many of them were horribly maimed. Both World War I and World War II would scar a generation in the same way.
World War II is of course referred to as “The Good War.” No war is good, but Hitler had to be stopped, and Fascism destroyed. This was accomplished at a cost of perhaps 40 million dead amongst all the combatants. Pause for a moment and try to imagine 40 million people being killed in five years. Fascism was destroyed, but of course the fear, racism and xenophobia that engendered it are not only still extant, but on the rise this very hour. Once again dictatorial world leaders, and one wanna-be dictator, threaten the world’s peace and the cause of freedom.
What does all this have to do with Gettysburg? It’s pretty simple, and it’s the kind of connection I endeavored to have my high school history students make. A divided America would very likely have resulted in the United States being unable to effective fight in WWII, and to a lesser extent in WWI. But in WWII, American production and Russian blood defeated Hitler. Yes, America shed blood as well. But we did not have our cities leveled or our civilians slaughtered. A divided America would quite likely led to the victory of fascism in WWII, to put it bluntly.
Once again, we are facing the challenge of stopping intolerant authoritarianism, which in fact is what fascism is. The situation is much different than it was in 1861, or 1941. One thing is the same, though. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The attribution of the quote is uncertain, and today we would say “people” for men, but the sentiment is as true now as it was when it was first uttered.
The other thing we must remember, and a thing which was a major motivator for me as a history teacher, is Santayana’s “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” On this long Independence Day weekend, as a pro-authoritarian, anti-democratic sitting U.S. President stages a spectacle mimicking the Nazis’ torchlight parades, or the parades held in the Soviet Union to commemorate various Soviet triumphs, and witnessed by the Soviet elite from a bandbox on the route, it is imperative that we remember both the quotes cited above.
It is imperative that we remember the sacrifices our nation has made in the defense of freedom. Freedom is once again threatened, and the fact that threat is being aided and abetted by a U.S. President makes it more, and not less imperative that we remember, and act.