On a hot and humid afternoon 150 years ago, 12,500 Confederate soldiers made a suicidal assault across three-quarters of a mile of open field against Union troops lodged behind fortifications south of a southern Pennsylvania town named Gettysburg.
The July 3 assault, known as Pickett’s Charge, failed. Gen. Robert E. Lee, who had ordered it, withdrew his Army of Northern Virginia back south, ending the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s troops would never again threaten the North.
On the following day, the Fourth of July, a thousand miles away, Union troops under command of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant captured the citadel city of Vicksburg, Miss., and gained control of the Mississippi River.
Lee would fight a war of attrition for another 21 months, but for all intents and purposes, after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederacy was doomed.
So why is it that in so many ways, the work of the Civil War is unfinished?
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote last week as the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
No doubt the chief is right. Yes, 95 years elapsed between the passage of the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which said the federal government could enforce that right. With its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the court struck down a key enforcement mechanism.
The issue would be a familiar one to Lee’s troops: states’ rights. Absent any overriding constitutional concerns, states make their own voting rules. The court’s majority is pleased to think that 48 years of enforcing the VRA in states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination is enough.
The day before its decision in Shelby County, the court had kicked another race-related case back to the lower courts. At issue is how much value there is to the University of Texas in having a racially diverse student body and how it measures it.
The concept of affirmative action suggests that institutions can, and indeed should, try to make up for some of the nation’s failures in extending the blessings of freedom. Majority-race plaintiffs, such as Abigail Fisher in the University of Texas case, don’t feel responsible for the lingering ills of slavery.
Then, too, students and parents in the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles County may not feel obligated to help counter the ills of urban public education in the Normandy School District. But this fall, thanks to a court order, Normandy students who want to travel 20 miles to Francis Howell Schools will be offered tuition and transportation.
There is no one reason why so many African-American children in America attend second-rate schools. But all of the reasons can be traced to America’s failure to finish the work of the Civil War.
So yes, there has been progress — a black man occupies the White House, after all. But every day, millions of black Americans live in conditions spawned by America’s failure to enforce the victory.
Abraham Lincoln went to the Gettysburg battlefield on Nov. 19, 1863, and spoke of the war testing whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could survive.
Historians long have debated whether Lincoln, had he lived, would have made a better peace than his successors did. As it happened, the slaves were freed, but given no way to make a living. They settled, most of them, back into a version of wage-slavery, tied to working on land they didn’t own for people who regarded them as lesser beings. By 1877, the Reconstruction Era had dissipated; states’ rights were once again ascendant.
Most of those who followed George Pickett, J. Johnston Pettigrew and Isaac R. Trimble across that field 150 years ago today were simple, uneducated men. They were there because they had to be, fighting — like soldiers in every war — for the men beside them. Fighting for some amorphous “cause.” Fighting for Robert E. Lee.
So, too, the men on the other side of the field. A few of the officers may have been abolitionists, but most of the troops were there because they had to be. In combat, men are too scared and too busy for great thoughts.
And so they met at a stone wall in the middle of the Union lines. The Confederates were badly cut up by artillery on the front and on their flanks. As they came within 400 yards, the men behind the wall opened up with rifled muskets. The slaughter was brutal; the Confederate casualty rate was 50 percent, killed, wounded and captured.
For one brief moment at a spot where the wall took a sharp turn, the Rebels broke through. An Army historian would later call the fighting at “The Angle” the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” But the Rebels couldn’t hold and retreated.
Gettysburg was left to generations of historians, military officers and Civil War buffs. Re-enactors don woolen uniforms and 19th-century boots and march across fields, dying with gusto. The hobby is particularly popular in the South.
The repercussions of Pickett’s Charge, and of Gettysburg, and of the war and of Reconstruction, were left to the rest of us. The job is not finished.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.