"This Great Day of Suffering": Redeeming Memories of the Civil War1

Article excerpt

I would like to begin by thanking HSEC President Bob Prichard for inviting me to be this evening's speaker. Since Americans are now in the process of commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I also appreciate his suggestion that I focus my remarks on religious aspects ofthat conflict, revisiting some sources I first studied while working on my Ph.D. thesis in the mid-1980s.2 An article in the New York Times recently declared that "Civil War fever is raging," and I certainly hope I can get some of that fever raging tonight. Moreover, as we gather here at Christ Church Cathedral on Monument Circle in Indianapolis, I trust we will feel inspired by the immense martial column towering over us, which celebrates the service of Indiana citizens in the so-called "War for the Union."4

Luckily for me - if "lucky" is the right word to describe it - today happens to be the one hundred and forty-ninth anniversary of George Pickett's legendary "Charge" at Gettysburg. On the afternoon of 3JuIy 1863 approximately 12,500 Confederate soldiers advanced on foot across almost a mile of open ground in a futile attempt to break the Union battle-line south of Gettysburg - a bloody defeat, often called "the high-water mark of the Confederacy," in which over 1,100 southerners were killed outright, at least 4,000 were wounded, and several hundred more were captured. In one well-known photograph of the carnage taken on the day following Pickett's assault, a cameraman recorded a panoramic view of bodies littering the battlefield - a scene that later was labeled, "A Harvest of Death."5

The poet Walt Whitman, who visited coundess numbers of wounded and dying soldiers at hospital bedsides during die war, also knew the horrible consequences of such battìes. The Civil War forced Whitman and Americans like him to come to terms with death as never before, dealing not only with the loss of hundreds of thousands of young lives in combat, but also with the sight of tens of thousands of maimed survivors of the fighüng. Profoundly moved by what he saw while nursing soldiers in military hospitals, Whitman complained diat the American public could not really appreciate the "interior history" of die war - the personal experiences of ordinary men, their feelings about what they had witnessed, and their memories of traumatic events on batdefields and in army camps. For him this was "the real war," but he feared it would never be adequately documented in the standard chronicles of the struggle.

Keeping in mind Whitman's insights about the importance of the war's "interior history," let me recount an incident that, indeed, does not appear in any of the official records of the military engagement at Gettysburg. In Four Years under Marse Robert, a popular memoir of life in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, former Confederate officer Robert Stiles wrote about a soldier named Allan, who was killed during Pickett's Charge. Allan had been a religious man, and Stiles described how, a few days before his death, he had remarked that the war's terrors were actually strengthening his faith. Although Allan eventually died in a gruesome fashion - the top of his head was blown off by a bursting artillery shell - Stiles was convinced that his friend's death at Gettysburg had not been tragic, but glorious and triumphant. Sure of his belief in Jesus Christ, Allan had fearlessly entered the battle, Stiles wrote, and at the instant when the cannonball ended his earthly life, he had been carried up into heaven, like Elijah, riding God's "chariot and horses of fire."8

A similar reflection on the "interior" meaning of the bloodletting at Gettysburg comes from the pen of Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Congregationalist minister and brother of the even more renowned novelist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher's novel Norwood describes life in a fictional New England village in the middle of the nineteenüi century. The most critical portion of the narrative occurs during the Civil War, when various residents of the town learn of the fate of their sons and brothers serving in Union regiments. …