This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, and the internet is overflowing with articles to commemorate that fact. If I had to choose just one of them, however, I think I would pick the op-ed piece that appears in today's New York Times. David Brooks examines "Why They Fought." He bases his argument on existing letters from the soldiers themselves, and he identifies some important ways in which they differ from the 20th-century soldiers whose wartime experiences are more familiar to us.
Most of you know that I have been exploring the problems of America's Civil War for the past six or seven years, and it was a small collection of letters just like the ones he talk about that got me started. My great-uncle James McCaskey was killed in the little-known Battle of Secessionville in June 1862. I was moved by the letter of notification written by his commanding lieutenant -- and particularly touched when I realized that on that letter the blotches were caused by someone's teardrops that had made the ink run.
The letter that really got my attention, however, was written by a fellow soldier who described the experience of the battle in a letter to his sister. It was full of bravado -- almost exhilaration -- as he talked about those who had been wounded or killed. He said things like, ""Not me! I didn't duck, neither. I stood up cause I wanted to see where the bullets was comin' from." For a long time I couldn't understand why the sister had passed this letter on to James's parents. It didn't feel comforting to me. It seemed almost heartless, as if the neighbor had thoroughly enjoyed his experience.
In one way or another, I've been working through those conflicting emotions of cockiness and grief ever since. This David Brooks article helps me understand the neighbor's reactions a little better. You can find it on my ScoopIt page: http://www.scoop.it/t/the-historian-s-point-of-view