Saturday, June 17, 2017


Strangely, I will often find myself ruminating over the Battle of Gettysburg, particularly the third day at the Battle of Gettysburg. It seems, somehow, to have something to do with me, despite the fact that it occurred in 1863. In a similar way, I feel an unusually personal connection with F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Tender is the Night. It, too, would seem to have something to do with me. Both the battle and the novel, on some foundational, some quintessential level, speak to patterns and shapes that lie at the center of my own life narrative and elicit a sort of personal companionship, a mutual experience and knowledge and sharing not of events (obviously), but a sharing, nonetheless, on some weird, fundamental, indivisible plain.

Some nights, I will lie awake considering the Battle of Gettysburg, replaying its progression, day one, day two, day three. And when I get to day three, I find myself, even as the events and the characters on the field suddenly lose themselves, veer away from their own natural pattern, that which history, character, expertise should have anticipated -- I find myself in that numinous moment.

Day one, I can understand. Though Robert E. Lee's Army of Nothern Virginia had stumbled into the battle quite without intent, the day went well, almost as if it had been planned. Two Federal Corps were swept from the field with the arrival of the larger part of the Confederate Army which, coincidentally, had been instructed to converge on the little town of Gettysburg as a point of consolidation. 

I also understand day two, though questions over the wisdom of fighting here had already begun to arise. Though the Confederates had seen success on day one, a strategic series of hills and ridges had been left securely in Union hands, and the full Union Army was quickly arriving. 

Nonetheless, it seemed reasonable, given the position of the Confederates, that both Union flanks could be hit, the high ground taken, and the matter concluded. Admittedly, and in hindsight, this was a conceit based on faulty intelligence, largely because Lee's cavalry, still distant from the battle, was unable to perform the reconnassance measures it would have otherwise provided. Even so, it was touch and go on this day, with the Rebels very nearly succeeding and the Yankees holding on by their fingertips. 

But as the third day dawned, Lee found himself facing the entirety of the Union Army, entrenched on ridge- and hilltop positions, abundantly supported by superior cannon. In short, it was the closest thing possible to being an impregnible position. 

And Lee's decision, apparently without a moment of serious doubt, was to attack -- and, moreover, to attack the very center, the strongest point of the position. 


That, itself, is the center of the rumination. What could he have been thinking? How could Robert E. Lee, this genius for war, this fox of maneuver, always on the battlefields of the three past years "the fustest with the mostest" (as Nathan Bedford Forrest has been misquoted as saying), who had outsmarted, outmaneuvered and outfought every Union General from McClellen to Hooker -- how could Lee have mistaken the situation before him as anything short of impossible?

Is there something Lee might have done differently on day three, aside from withdraw? I can think of nothing; nor do I know of any historian who has suggested any other alternative.

Facing the impossible, advised by his most trusted commanders to quit the battle, Lee stubbornly insisted on the attack now known as Pickett's Charge, resulting in the destruction of an entire division, and, ultimately, in the defeat of the Confederacy. 

Was it as simple as this -- that knowing on the level of good reasoning, past experience, the advise of tacticians, simple mathematics, the witness of his own eyes, was ultimately inferior to hoping? Was this a Peter Pan moment -- If only you will believe? Did he believe that the course of events could be carried by unassailable faith, that goodness, that purity, that self effacement carried its own swift and magic sword?

That is where we meet, he and I. Nothing to do with Gettysburg, really. Nothing to do with the Civil War, or with struggles in the flesh in any kind. Everything to do with the unquestioning investment of hope, what could be, what might be, what should be. The possibility of defeat is not dismisssed. It has merely been put aside in favor of improbable, though still possible, surely possible, victory. 

In Tender is the Night, we have a man, Dick Diver, who similarlaly banks on the force of good intention that he himself can bring to outcomes that would seem to be entrenched against him; we have a man whose goodness, rather than ultimately victorious, ultimately succumbs to the failures that surround him. It is an ascendency of what is essentially weak that overcomes, degrades and destroys the purity, the love that might have healed. Young Diver's good world of honor and compassion, energy and hope, selflessness and strength of character is gradually eaten by the disease of lesser things, selfishness, carelessness, hatreds, betrayals, lust, money. Diver, like Lee, spends his own third day watching the last glimmer of his unreasonable, unreasoning dreams walk away.

I have read Tender is the Night perhaps five times, start to finish. It speaks to me. I know the story. The story knows me. 

Such are my ruminations. 

What are yours?

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