Two Anniversaries of “Our Holy Cause”: Melville’s “Gettysburg”

Gettysburg:—July, 1863

from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (July 1866)

by Herman Melville

O PRIDE of the days in prime of the months
Now trebled in great renown,
When before the ark of our holy cause
Fell Dagon down
Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,
Never his impious heart enlarged
Beyond that hour; God walled his power,
And there the last invader charged.

He charged, and in that charge condensed
His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells
Aerial screamings, taunts, and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
And Right is a strong-hold yet.

Before our lines it seemed a beach
Which wild September gales have strown
With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith
Pale crews unknown
Men, arms, and steeds.  The evening sun
Died on the face of each lifeless one,
And died along the winding marge of fight
And searching-parties lone.

Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,
Our centre held that place of graves,
And some still hold it in their swoon,
And over these a glory waves.
The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,
Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,
A meaning ampler bear;
Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer
Have laid the stone, and every bone
Shall rest in honor there.

Today, the 234th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence is also the 147th anniversary of the full Confederate retreat from Gettysburg.  The day before (July 3, 1863), the Confederate’s “high watermark” was reached when the desperation charge against a well entrenched federal line broke and ran. The charge was not the last time that Lee would roll the dice (the invasion was itself a grand gamble), but it was the most devastating – and it lacked all the hallmarks of the shrewd general; it was neither covert, nor unforeseeable, nor supported, nor well calculated to succeed.  It was the end of any realistic hope the Confederacy had. The invasion did not succeed in relieving pressure there, and in fact ended with the devastation of the Army of Northern Virginia. Now all that was left was for Lee to fight a brutal, bloody and senseless defense of Richmond. While Lee’s army was retreating from Pennsylvania (leaving (having lost well over one-third of its force in casualties) another signal victory was achieved by the natiuon’s forces against the massive rebellion in support of slavery—Vicksburg surrendered to Grant on July 4, which effectively secured the Mississippi River transportation for commerce and transport. This makes a third anniversary to be celebrated today.

The sense of relief to the Union was palpable. Finally after two years of the grimmest of bad news, the end was in sight. At the end of the three days the national forces had suffered about 23,000 in casualties and the Army of Northern Virginia over 28,000, but the effect was more lopsided since Confederates could ill afford that loss. Although news that the Union forces had failed to chase the retreating Confederate Army (again) deflated the initial euphoria, the country again readied itself for more slaughter, but this time a turning point could be felt. After two years of defeat and disorganization, a nation which was now fighting for freedom for all had hope because “Our centre held that place of graves,” as Melville put it.

The grim resolve of the Union forces at Gettysburg would be celebrated on that battlefield four months later when Abraham Lincoln would deliver an address that is rivaled only by the Declaration of Independence as a statement of what we aspire to, but rarely achieve. Today we celebrate two times that our predecessors (our “forefathers”) did achieve them. Once by intellectual courage and foresight. The other time by that kind of terrifying and ultimate resolve that few have been asked to demonstrate.

Happy Fourth!

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