Saturday, July 04, 2009

A Satisfying Fourth of July

As a result of the rain, the Fourth of July fireworks were cancelled in Morehead. However Mrs. RSI and I spent a satisfying 90 minutes of so re-watching the Army of the Potomac repulse Pickett's Charge in the movie Gettysburg.

I see where John McCain gave a desultory speech about American greatness in terms of being "leader of the free world" and bombing the crap out of Iran. But social justice is the most important measure of national greatness and the Battle of Gettysburg was a first crucial step in America's fumbling efforts to cash in on the promises of our iconic documents. Thomas Jefferson had written that all men were created equal and Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but it wasn't until Gettysburg that the United States began to decisively turn the tide on the evil of slavery. It was only with the defeat of the Confederate Rebellion that America could start to envision itself as fulfilling the promise of revolutionary democracy and Gettysburg was the turning point that made American victory almost inevitable.

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln said that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." I don't believe that this or any nation has ever lived under a divinity, but I do think that the Battle of Gettysburg was a decisive event in the "new birth of freedom" that began with the Emancipation Proclamation. That new birth of freedom prepared the way for another birth of freedom in the Civil Rights Movement and the other new births of freedom associated with feminism, gay rights, and the growth of immigrant cultures.

The United States is a great nation because it has become a diverse nation that has leveraged the struggle against racial segregation into a general movement toward social freedom. I'm well into middle age, but I still hope that the expansion of freedom in my lifetime will develop into a movement for the social justice of equal economic opportunity as well.

That would make us a much greater nation still.

It should be mentioned that the Union Army at Gettysburg was in some ways a multi-national army. The Eleventh Corps that was so involved in the fighting on the first and second day was largely a German unit. Likewise, an Irish regiment played a decisive role in turning back Longstreet's attack on the Union left during the second day.

The Union victory at Gettysburg was also a victory for ordinary soldiers and low level officers. As had been the case for almost two years, the Union Army was plagued by poor generalship at Gettysburg. Union generals like Daniel Sickles were simply outclassed by Confederates rivals like James Longstreet. But Union regiments kept saving the Union position by making heroic charges or standing their own ground against Confederate advances. The bravery of units like the 20th Maine, 1st Minnesota, and 40th New York made up for the poor performance of the generals on the second day of the battle. The flanking fire of the 8th Ohio was an important factor in turning back the left flank of the final Confederate charge on the third day.

The romance of the Confederacy that developed after the Civil War still dominates popular presentations of the Battle of Gettysburg. That's why the final action of the battle is still thought of more in terms of the tragedies of Lee's hubris, Longstreet's agonizing, and Pickett's fatal charge than the importance of the Union defense for the future of this country.

But the Battle of Gettysburg was a tremendous turning point in the history of a country whose future is still bright now that the tide of modern conservatism has been turned back as well.

Watching Gettysburg was a fitting way to spend the Fourth of July.

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