Over 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or reported missing in Gettysburg in July 1863, many of them dying in terrible agony on the battlefield or carted off to improvised hospitals where arms and legs were swiftly amputated and tossed into large heaps on the floor. Abysmal hygiene—surgeons would nonchalantly wipe the blood from their bone saws on their pus-stained smocks and move on to the next victim—caused infection, blood poisoning and gangrene. To buy time, regiments such as the 1st Minnesota were ordered into battle against superior forces and as a result were decimated within minutes. Hundreds of African American men, women and children, many born free in the surrounding Pennsylvania towns, were abducted by invading Confederate forces led by Gen. Robert E. Lee and shipped south to be sold in the slave markets in Richmond, Va. Confederate and at times Union forces looted homes, farms and shops. For three days in the summer of 1863, there was an orgy of destruction, death and suffering on this ground.
An estimated 750,000 soldiers were killed by combat, accident, starvation and disease in the Civil War, more than in all other American wars combined, according to a 2012 study. Rifled muskets and rifled artillery vastly increased the range and accuracy of fire over the 18th century’s smoothbore muskets and cannons, but the advance in weaponry did nothing to perturb the generals who clung to outdated and now suicidal tactics. They sent their soldiers marching forward in parade-ground lines into murderous volleys as if they were on a Napoleonic battlefield. The inability of most generals to adapt, as Allen C. Guelzo writes in “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion,” “makes the Civil War look like an exercise in raw stupidity equivalent to the slaughters on the Western Front [of World War I].”
I am descended from one of three brothers who fought at Gettysburg. Clark S. Edwards was a Union general. Albert M. Edwards was a colonel in the elite Iron Brigade. Congress voted in 2018 to award him a posthumous Medal of Honor. David A. Edwards is my great-great-grandfather. He was a sergeant in the 5th Maine, and his war diaries, letters, brass cartridge box plate and pocket watch are next to me as I write.
“Cold and rainy,” David wrote in his diary on May 12, 1864. “2nd Corps captured a rebel division of infantry, 3 major generals, took their works, 25 guns. Our division sent to support them. We made a charge on pits. I received a wound in the right arm. Went to the rear.”
Four days later, on May 16, he wrote: “Still in Fredericksburg, nothing to eat, no care, nothing that we need.”
As a boy I hiked to the top of Monument Hill in Leeds, Maine. On the summit is a 30-foot-high granite obelisk erected by the Union general and fierce abolitionist Oliver Otis Howard, who was from Leeds. He lost his right arm in the Battle of Fair Oaks/Seven Pines in a June 1862 action for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war he was the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau and helped found historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., serving as the school’s president from 1869 to 1874. He called his obelisk a peace monument and inscribed on it: “Peace Was Sure 1865.” Howard railed against the glorification of war, writing, “We cannot well exaggerate … the horrors, the hateful ravages, and the countless expense of war.” Stories of war, he said, should serve only one purpose, to “show plainly to our children that war, with its embodied woes and furies, must be avoided.”
By focusing on battlefield exploits we too often blot out the suffering of the soldiers, the families that lost sons, brothers and husbands, and the hundreds of thousands of children left without fathers. We ignore the crippling physical and psychological wounds that plague veterans. Units in the Civil War were raised locally. Towns and villages could within one day of heavy fighting lose a third or more of their men, plunging entire populations into collective grief. Maine, per capita, sent more men to war than any other Northern state. There is hardly a town in Maine that does not have a Civil War memorial with a shockingly long list of names. The weight of the loss was still felt when I was a boy in the 1960s, especially, in my case, because my grandmother lived with her grandfather, David, the onetime sergeant, until he died when she was 8. He was wracked by pain from his wound until the end of his life.
“Burial Parties were sent out, and those who could get away from their commands went out to view the scene of carnage, and surely it was a scene never to be forgotten,” wrote a New Jersey soldier. “Upon the open fields, like sheaves bound by the reaper, in crevices of the rocks, behind fences, trees and buildings; in thickets, where they had crept for safety only to die in agony; by stream or wall or hedge, wherever the battle had raged or their waking steps could carry them, lay the dead. Some with faces bloated and blackened beyond recognition, lay with glassy eyes staring up at the blazing summer sun; others, with faces downward and clenched hands filled with grass or earth, which told of the agony of the last moments. Here a headless trunk, there a severed limb; in all the grotesque positions that unbearable pain and intense suffering contorts the human form, they lay. Upon the faces of some death had frozen a smile; some showed the trembling shadow of fear, while upon others was indelibly set the grim stamp of determination. All around was the wreck the battle-storm leaves in its wake—broken caissons, dismounted guns, small arms bent and twisted by the storm or dropped and scattered by disabled hands; dead and bloated horses, torn and ragged equipments, and all the sorrowful wreck that the waves of battle leave at their ebb; and over all, hugging the earth like a fog, poisoning every breath, the pestilential stench of decaying humanity.”
The miasma of rotting bodies after the Battle of Gettysburg, exacerbated by the carcasses of 5,000 horses and mules, lingered for weeks. Residents in the town of Gettysburg had to cover their mouths and noses when they went outside.
“A sickening, overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead upon which the July sun was mercilessly shining and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler until it seemed to possess a palpable horrible density that could be seen and felt and cut with a knife … ,” wrote Cornelia Hancock, a Union nurse at Gettysburg.
Time has long since erased these gruesome sights and smells from the battlefield national park, along with the disorienting confusion, fear and deafening noise of combat. The groomed fields and undulating hills are dotted with stately monuments to Civil War units and leaders. The park memorializes the aspect of the battle and the war the state wants us to memorialize. It tells us that honor, glory and courage, true patriotism, come from serving the state, although, as Ulysses S. Grant said, the Confederate cause was “one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”
The Gettysburg park implicitly celebrates nationalism and elevates the warrior caste. The Confederates, fighting to preserve slavery, have, with the deified Lee, been admitted into our pantheon of national heroes because of their martial valor. The cruelty and folly of war, along with the holocaust of slavery and the widespread grief and suffering caused by the staggering numbers of dead and wounded, are treated as tangential aspects eclipsed by the great sacrifice.
I stood on Little Round Top, a hill within the park where the breastworks erected by the 5th Maine are still visible. David, who fought there, had little use for senior officers, including his brother the general, who like many other generals callously sent men to be slaughtered to burnish battlefield credentials. In a letter to his wife dated Aug. 16, 1864, from the hospital at Camp Fry in Illinois he calls his brother “a miserable, lying scoundrel” who is “devoid of any moral or manly principle or honor.” “His nature is composed of selfishness and egoism,” he added.
Clark Edwards, a friend of Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, like Chamberlain and the New York politician and general Dan Sickles, would spend the postwar years elevating himself as an icon of battlefield heroism and use that image to further his political ambitions, which included an unsuccessful run for governor of Maine as the Democratic nominee. (Guelzo writes of Sickles, whose military incompetence nearly led to a Union defeat, that he “oozed sleaze and dissimulation from every pore.”)
David Edwards, along with the other soldiers on Little Round Top, was acutely aware that Chamberlain’s 20th Maine played only a secondary role in repulsing the Confederates. The Confederates were denied Little Round Top, an important piece of raised topography on the battlefield, because of the foresight of Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren and the alacrity and courage of brigade commander Gen. Strong Vincent and Col. Patrick O’Rorke, who commanded the 140th New York Infantry. But because Vincent and O’Rorke were killed in the defense of the hill, there was little impediment to Chamberlain’s tireless revisionist accounts of the fight. Chamberlain, in addition to being awarded, like Sickles, the Medal of Honor, became the president of Bowdoin College and served four terms as the governor of Maine. He authored “seven accounts of Gettysburg,” Guelzo writes, “giving himself the starring role on Little Round Top, and Little Round Top the starring role in the battle.” Guelzo adds: “Mortality, and the ex-professor’s considerable flair for self-promotion, vaulted him ahead of others.”
It was the third brother, Albert, who would be at the center of some of the most savage fighting at Gettysburg, narrowly escaping death. He was at the time a captain in the 24th Michigan, one of five regiments in the Iron Brigade. He had attended the University of Michigan and been a newspaper reporter, an experience that helped make his official battlefield reports literate and at times moving.
The Iron Brigade was one of the most celebrated brigades in the Union Army, easily identifiable by the black “Hardee” hats its members wore instead of the blue caps typical of most Union troops. By the end of the war it would lead all federal brigades in percentage of deaths in battle. But the combat-forged hardness of its troops came with a cost.
My grandmother had the 1891 edition of “History of 24th Michigan of the Iron Brigade,” which I now possess. It has a dried rose between page 234 and 235. I was haunted when I first read it as a boy not only by the horrific losses endured by the 24th Michigan in the first day of the battle, which left Albert in command, but by the execution of a deserter, Pvt. John P. Woods of the 19th Indiana, on June 12 on the way north.
“At about 2 o’clock the Iron Brigade led the column into a field, preceded by the prisoner sitting on his coffin,” Sgt. Sullivan D. Green wrote in the history. “In silence, three sides of a hollow square were formed. The coffin was placed on the ground, the prisoner alighted from the ambulance with the chaplain who held a few moments’ converse with the doomed man. …”
Twelve soldiers were selected for the firing squad and issued muskets. One of the muskets had a blank.
“A handkerchief was placed over his eyes, and his arms and legs were bound,” Green noted. “At the command ‘attention,’ the usual word of caution or preparation, they were to fire,” Green wrote. “The hat [in the hand of an officer] was lifted—10,000 eyes were strained in one breathless gaze—it was lowered, and many eyes withdrew from the sight that was to follow. The report of arms was heard and a lifeless body fell backward to the dust!”
Wood’s wife was seriously ill. He had tried to go home to be with her.
On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Iron Brigade, heavily outnumbered by Confederates, attempted to hold the Union line at McPherson’s Ridge. By nightfall only 99 of the 496 members of the 24th Michigan had not been killed, wounded or captured, a loss of 80%. Albert and two lieutenants were the only officers remaining on the field. The entire brigade had been mauled, reduced to 600 soldiers from the original 1,885. The survivors were repositioned on Culp’s Hill.
I stood on McPherson’s Ridge, the scene of the bloodbath 156 years ago that took the life of Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds. The shade of the towering trees and slight rustle of the leaves gave this isolated part of the battlefield a gentle tranquility. But by the end of July 1, 1863, the ground surrounding me was covered with Union dead and wounded, many of whom had to be abandoned in the slow retreat back toward town.
“Coming up in the wake of the attack he heard ‘dreadful howls’ in the woods on the ridge, and when he went over to investigate he found that the source of the racket was the wounded of both sides,” Shelby Foote, writing in “Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863,” said of Confederate Gen. William Dorsey Pender, who would be mortally wounded the next day. “Several were foaming at the mouth, as though mad, and seemed not even to be aware they were screaming.”
My grandmother began her life in the shadow of one war—the Civil War—and her life ended in the shadow of another—World War II. Her only son, my uncle Maurice, had fought as an Army infantryman in the South Pacific in World War II, in which he was wounded by a mortar blast. He returned a physical and emotional wreck, speaking little and retreating into a haze of alcoholism. I remember him as a distant, bewildering man, struggling with demons I did not understand. Like his great-grandfather David, he felt betrayed by his country, its generals and its politicians. Maurice mailed his medals back to the Army. Seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table one morning, he told me about the time his platoon was drinking from a stream. When they turned the corner, they saw 25 Japanese corpses in the water. It was the only time he spoke to me about his experiences as a soldier.
His erratic behavior was mystifying to me. I asked my grandmother after he left what was wrong with him. “The war,” she said acidly.