By Stephen W. Sears
623 pages; $30
To read Stephen Sears' outstanding account of the Battle of Gettysburg is to understand why the Calvinists in the Conference on Faith and History are so reluctant to say anything about God's action in the past. It's a strange phenomenon easily observed: the Calvinist, quoting the Genevan himself, says that, ultimately, "nothing happens except what is knowingly decreed by God."
The inquirer asks how this view applies to Robert E. Lee's Pennsylvania campaign of 1863 (total combined casualties: 57,225), and is met with uncomfortable puzzlement or a reproachful assertion of divine sovereignty. That's partly because, as Sears repeatedly shows, 140 years of study have not done much to clean up the awful messiness and contingency that marked this devastating struggle. Nor has it done anything to stem the view that things really could have turned out differently.
"I think that our lines should have advanced immediately" after the failure of Pickett's Charge, Union General Winfield Hancock said, "and I believe that we should have won a great victory." In a letter he never sent, Abraham Lincoln gently chided the Union general, George Meade, for letting Lee escape back to Virginia following the Confederates' defeat at Gettysburg. "[Lee]was within your easy grasp," Lincoln wrote, "and to have closed upon him would … have ended the war." Sears disagrees with Lincoln; he thinks Meade's decision not to attack Lee immediately after Gettysburg was smart militarily, for then Lee would have had the advantage of defense—and Lee's men were hungry for revenge.
As for Lee, Sears' assessment is mostly critical. Where General Meade remained well informed, Lee stood almost aloof, employing a "hands-off managing style." Where Meade consulted with his generals and valued consensus, Lee seemed not very interested in his generals' opinions. James Longstreet, Lee's "war horse," could see what was coming on the third day of battle; "I don't want to make this attack," he said.
Looking out over the three-quarters of a mile they would have to traverse, under fire, before making contact with Union forces, even lowly privates could see that their venture would fail. But Lee didn't think it would fail; and after the war, he continued to believe that, had Pickett's attack been followed up effectively, the attack could have succeeded. And perhaps it could have (though Sears doubts it). Needless to say, myriad southerners have wished it had.
Lee seems to have been driven by overconfidence and a thorough contempt for the abilities of his enemy. (Previous experience made Lee's low view of the Union's martial ability understandable.) Hubris is sinful; pride went before the fall of Lee's plans. But there isn't much of a "lesson" to be learned here. Readers of his biographies know that Lee was no less pious than his Yankee counterparts. Sears quotes him, and his foes, as depending on the same "providence" in the same way. And, in any event, Lee would trounce Union troops several times after Gettysburg.
The South's ultimate defeat had partly to do with a relatively small industrial base and a lack of manpower, as well as with festering divisions among secessionists. It may also have had to do with divine judgment against slaveholders, but Abraham Lincoln (that curiously impious but profound theologian) may have been more on the mark when he surmised that the war revealed God's judgment against both sides.
What makes Gettysburg endlessly interesting is that Meade could have counterattacked Lee, and Lee's men could have had a quick chance to deliver paybacks. Before the battle, Confederate cavalry master J.E.B. Stuart could have supplied Lee with the much-needed military intelligence he lacked. And if the South had gained a major victory on northern soil, then perhaps the French would have assisted the Confederacy's bid for independence the way they assisted the American revolutionaries of an earlier generation. And if these things had happened, then the course of American history could have taken a different turn.
There is no evidence of a decreed, iron-clad will at work at Gettysburg. Instead, there is calculation, human limitation, bravery and cowardice; there were "piles of legs, arms, feet, hands, fingers"; there was the belief that if Stonewall Jackson, Lee's trusted assistant, had lived to see Gettysburg, "it wouldn't have been like this"; there were (in Sears' words) "major blunders," "circumstances," and "chances."
Sears, former editor of American Heritage and author of widely praised books on Chancellorsville and Antietam, is a good writer and researcher; he chooses his words well. And his words remind me that Christian theology can be of most use to historical reflection when it takes human freedom seriously—not cloaking it with references to "secondary causes," which, in the end, don't mitigate the dismal view that everything happened at Gettysburg just the way it did because that's the way God wanted it to happen.
There's a reason people flinch at the thought of blood pooling on the fields of Gettysburg. It's because they know that that isn't how the world is supposed to be. Most people also believe that God didn't intend the world to be like that. But God knows, as everyone who can read a newspaper knows, that the world will be like that until there is a new world for us to live in.
Preston Jones, a contributing editor to Books & Culture, teaches history at John Brown University.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com.
The July/August issue of Books & Culture includes a special section on America and the meaning of the Civil War. Articles from the issue already posted online include:
Rebirth of a Nation | The introduction to Books & Culture's special section.
"Baptism in Blood" | The Civil War and the creation of an American civil religion.
Getting It Half-Right| What's worth celebrating in Gods and Generals—and what's not.
When Thou Goest Out to Battle| The religious world of Civil War soldiers.
Other Civil War articles from Christianity Today sister publications:
Content and Context | A Civil War edition of the Books & Culture weblog. (Books & Culture, June 23, 2003)
Civil War Bookshelf | A sampling of noteworthy books from the torrent of recent titles. (Books & Culture, June 2, 2003)
The Dick Staub Interview: Gods and Generals' Director Links the Civil War with Today | Ron Maxwell talks about the role his faith plays in his career and what attracts him to the generation of the 1860s. (Christianity Today, Feb. 25, 2003)
The Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln | Where was God in this brutal national war? An unbaptized non-churchgoer came up with a profound answer. (Christian History, issue 33)
Revivals in the Camp | At first, most Civil War soldiers cared little for religion. But as the bloody war dragged on, hundreds of thousands converted to Christianity. (Christian History, issue 33)
Fighters of Faith | These Christian generals helped wage the Civil War, and their faith affected how they did it. (Christian History, issue 33)
Memorializing the Civil War | Every May we're reminded of the war that split our country, but the Christian stories of that struggle remain buried. Here are some facts you probably didn't know. (Christian History, May 5, 1998)
Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
Why There Will Be Sidewalks in Heaven | Isaiah and the New Urbanism. (June 9, 2003)
True Believers | Incoming! The McSweeney's crowd launches a new monthly. (June 2, 2003)
Facing the Past Günter | Grass and the debate over Germans as victims in World War II. (May 19, 2003)
Are Movies Fundamentally Inferior to Books? | Two responses to Ralph Wood's claim that "biblical tradition elevates word over picture." (May 12, 2003)
Buffy and the Meaning of Life | Buffy the Vampire Slayer finally gets some respect. Too bad the life is slowly ebbing out of the show. (May 5, 2003)
Bird Watching with Anne Lamott | A PBS documentary enters the unruly, grace-filled world of the author of Traveling Mercies. (April 21, 2003)
A Story Darwin Might Love | Brian McLaren's evolutionary interpretation of the faith promises more than it delivers, but what it delivers is good enough. (April 14, 2003)
Why We Are in Iraq | Michael Kelly, R.I.P. (April 7, 2003)
Letter from Spain | A former resident returns to find that it is still stony ground for the Gospel. (March 31, 2003)
Lessons in Nation-Building From a Fledgling Democracy | Shays's Rebellion describes a time when revolution was no longer cool. (March 24, 2003)
Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (March 17, 2003)
Vanity Fair | A chronicler of religion plays the straight man. (March 10, 2003)
Diagnosing "The Doctor" | A new assessment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preacher. (March 3, 2003)