Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Remembering Gettysburg: The Steep Price of American Democracy

As the United States remembers the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, I scan my family tree and see that seven young men in my far-flung family network died in the battle. None was a direct ancestor of mine. All were siblings or nephews of my ancestors. All were in the their 20s and 30s, except for one man who was 41. Several left widows and children.

Nearly a third of the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg died--over 50,000 men, according to many tallies. The loss of husbands, fathers, is visible in my family tree, as families headed by young widows began to fall apart, the children moving about to find new homes, the widows eventually disappearing into the cracks of history that too often claim women's lives, so that no record of the final years of their lives is extant.

Extended families helped these widows and orphans: that's clear. The only son of a brother of my Lindsey great-great-grandfather, a brother killed at Gettysburg, went to Texas after the war to live with an uncle who had moved there from Alabama. One of my great-grandfather's brothers did the same. Both of these adventurous young men, cousins sharing the name Dennis after their grandfather, ended up together as Texas Rangers on the west Texas border.

But it was often very difficult for the extended families of those who lost husbands and fathers to pick up the pieces in an age when there was no social security at all, no assistance for those in dire need. Many of those families also lost fathers and sons in the war. A family into which my Lindsey relatives in Alabama  repeatedly married lost two sons on the same day at the battle of Fort Sumter, and by one of those twists of fate so cruel that they seem impossible to fathom, on that very same day, two of the daughters of the family who had not yet reached the age of 20 died at home in Alabama. One was struck by lightning as she sat on the side of her bed watching a storm out the window.

When the war ended, the father of this family took a gun, went to the gate of the fence in front of his house, tied the gun to the gate so that it would fire when he closed the gate, and shot himself.

War is hell. The bloody American Civil War was hell squared.

But the socioeconomic and moral illness the war resolved--slavery--was hell many times over. And those who were unable to recognize that the practice of slavery was an illness had no resolution to treat the condition until the bloody war that took so many young lives forced their hand.

The graphic: the Gettysburg Address as transcribed by Lincoln's secretary John Nicolay, from the Library of Congress website.

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