Small Wars Journal

In illo tempore...

There is a curious quality that overcomes the mind during a visit to sacred space. Today, I rode along on the staff ride at Gettysburg and saw that quality of mind slowly come into being as we moved from site to site on the battlefield. The manifestation that arose was not one of what lessons can we learn from the battle and campaign but, rather, one of what questions should we ask.

As you might have gathered, Robert and I rode in different buses even while we both took part in the same staff ride. Or did we? After the ride was over, we got the chance to talk to each other about how each of our rides operated and, as it turns out, there were some differences.

The biggest difference between our two rides lay in the tactics of how people were encouraged to interact, both with each other and with the past. In place of people having been tasked with short presentations, we were encouraged to ask questions, make comments and, in general, bring out free associations between the past, the present and the future.

I cannot say whether this difference came about as a result of differing pedagogical styles or just emerged from the group interaction. What I can say, however, is that I had an opportunity to both witness and take part in an event that I can only describe as a "ritual". Over the course of the day, I could see people bringing the past into the present until, by the end of the ride, past and present seemed to co-mingle. It was fitting that the end of the ride was signalled by thunder, lightning and a line squall.

I describe the event as a "ritual" in a very technical sense. Fifty years ago, Mircea Eliade talked about the power of origin myths -- how by re-enacting the origin myth, the participants in these rituals would touch both a "sacred time" and a source of power that could re-invigorate them. I saw some of that process operating today.

At the start of his post, Robert asked

Why would the Army waste the time of the senior leaders of its training and doctrine command with a guided tour of a 19th century battlefield? What does Gettysburg have to do with Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other conflicts the Army is likely to face?

Certainly for the ride I was on, the answer is still "Quite a lot", but it went beyond historical analogies and lessons into something much more subtle and intangible. It set the stage for these senior leaders to reconnect with one of the key events that defines the modern United States. It was truly a case of "In that time...".

And before someone comments that I am being overly poetic, let me note that we were primed for this by a quote that served to introduce the ride and, for our bus at least, served to close it.

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, October 3rd, 1889


Boatspace (not verified)

Wed, 08/19/2009 - 9:34am

Brevet MajGen, Chamberlain, forever known as the Lion of the Roundtop, one of Grant's favorites, was indeed in charge of the honor guard at Appomattox Court House. He shocked the world when as the Stonewall Brigade came by, on his own w/o orders to do so, he called the guard to present arms - a gesture not lost on "wise" men, but for which he was later criticized.

Chamberlain, who received the MOH for his actions at Gettysburg, may be the last to actually die of wounds from the Civil War, since upon his death in 1914, an autopsy revealed an old war wound had become enflamed.

Gettysburg - a study in command, but with many anecdotal stories.

John T. Fishel

Wed, 08/19/2009 - 8:52am

Chamberlain was a Major Gen by the end of the war. He commanded the guard of honor at the surrender at Apomattox. He was alos elected governor of Maine 3 times and was President of Bowdoin College where he had been teaching when the war broke out.He is, of course, the central character inMichael Shaara's classic novel of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, and the film, Gettsburg made from the novel.
I must say, that your post captures the very essence of what a trip to Gettysburg should be. I have been there on staff rides, and many times on my own. On the first staff ride, we walked the second day from Longstreet's perspective to Chamberlain's position on the extreme left flak of the Union line. On the second ride, we walked Pickett's charge. But my clear favorite, was when my wife and I walked the first day of the battle from where Buford's pickets saw Heth's troops coming down the Emmitsburg Pike to Cemetary Hill where Generals Hancock and Howard reorganized the Union defense.
The one way I would still like to see the battle is on horseback and there are mounted tours. It is a totally different perspective sitting over 5 feet above the ground - as officers from time immemorial to the end of the 19th century knew well.
Thanks for an inspiring tale from a foreign observer. :)


marct (not verified)

Wed, 08/19/2009 - 7:22am

Well, not being an historian of the period, and I didn't even stay at a Holiday Inn last night, I'd have to say "I don't know". I believe he received a courtesy promotion to BG on his (supposed) deathbed in 1864, and managed to keep the rank by not having the courtesy to die of his wounds.

I used his Colonelcy for a simple reason: regardless of his final rank, he is remembered for his actions at Gettysburg when he was a colonel. The speech I was quoting from was given at the dedication of the monument to the 20th Maine's actions at Gettysburg, so in many was what he was then (1863) is the "fixing point" for him in the myth. Intriguingly enough, when I was googling around to find the exact quote, I came across the <a href="">Echos of Gettysburg</a> page which uses his speech, and they refer to him as "Colonel".

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was Colonel of the 20th Maine at Gettysburg in 1863. Was he not a (retired) Brevet Major General in 1889?