David Brooks on Gettysburg–Why They Fought

In our current era, as the saying goes, we take that which is lower to be more real. We generally believe that soldiers under the gritty harshness of war are not thinking about high ideals like gallantry. They are just trying to get through the day or protect their buddies. Since World War I, as Hemingway famously put it, abstract words like “honor” and “glory” and “courage” often seem obscene and pretentious. Studies of letters sent home by soldiers in World War II suggest that grand ideas were remote from their daily concerns.

But Civil War soldiers were different. In his 1997 book “For Cause and Comrades,” James M. McPherson looked at the private letters Civil War soldiers sent to their loved ones. As McPherson noted, they ring with “patriotism, ideology, concepts of duty, honor, manhood and community.”

The soldiers were intensely political. Newspapers were desperately sought after in camp. Between battles, several regiments held formal debates on subjects like the constitutional issues raised by the war. “Ideological motifs almost leap from many pages of these documents,” McPherson reports. “It is government against anarchy, law against disorder,” a Philadelphia printer wrote, explaining his desire to fight.

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5 comments on “David Brooks on Gettysburg–Why They Fought

  1. David Keller says:

    This is good as far as it goes; but the problem with the liberal press (I know Brooks is supposed to be the conservative at the Times, and if you belive that we can talk about a bridge I own in Brooklyn later) is the VAST majority have never served in uniform. David Brooks has no more clue about why soldiers and Marines do what they do than the man in the moon. I order to live in harmony with the liberal narrative, he can not believe that there are truly such notions as duty, honor, patriotism, self sacrifice, altruism etc. in today’s military. As for the soldiers at Gettysburg, I do not believe how they could stand sholuder to shoulder blasting one another with .53 caliber bullets at 100 yards. They were the bravest of the brave. Too bad the Times doesn’t have a veteran who could write op eds for them and actually realize how much the sarifice was/is.

  2. Jim the Puritan says:

    My feeling is the old America has been lost, perhaps forever, and replaced with a modern version of the Roman Empire, still moralistic, but fundamentally corrupt, immoral and hypocritical. Personal character has been replaced with political correctness. Honesty and integrity have been replaced with government oversight and surveillance. Volunteerism and helping your neighbor have been replaced with progressive taxation and government handouts. Judgments are made and rights are possessed primarily based on the color of one’s skin, gender and sexual proclivities, rather than on the content of one’s character.

    I went to the local Gettysburg sesquicentennial observance here on Saturday at our local cemetery where the GAR plot and Civil War Memorial are and civil war veterans are buried–both Union and Confederate. (I went because I have ancestors who fought on both sides in that war, although none at Gettysburg.) There were a handful of mostly elderly people who showed up and 4 reenactors. No government officials or dignitaries. No bands, no volleys, although one of the reenactors fired several shots with his musket, partly in salute of the veterans, but mainly to show folks how it was done back then. I thought it was a rather sad statement of what has been forgotten and lost in this country.

  3. Cennydd13 says:

    “Duty, Honor, Country” aren’t just words uttered by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur in an address delivered to the Corps of Cadets at West Point. They are words which we who are veterans lived by, for the most part. It was always duty first above all. The honor of our respective services was usually reflected in the pride we showed in being a Marine, sailor, soldier, or airman…..especially if we were professionals, and it was always understood that our duty to our country came first and foremost.

  4. Cennydd13 says:

    My family’s connection to the Civil War is via the 122nd New York State Volunteer Infantry from the Syracuse area, otherwise known as the Onondagas Regiment, and they saw action at The Wilderness, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg in the Battle of Culp’s Hill. Letters from my mother’s great uncles who served in that regiment indicated little about love of country, but did mention that they felt deeply about the obligation to do their duty. Both survived the battle and the war.

  5. Jim the Puritan says:

    At my church men’s group meeting last week, we discussed why it seemed the men of our father’s generation (for us now in our fifties), the so-called “greatest generation,” were so much closer to each other than men today and seemed to have their acts better together. We thought one reason might be that so many of them had a shared experience in serving in the military in World War II. I certainly remember classifying my Dad and his friends (mostly referred to as “uncle,” whether they were blood relatives of not) by stories I heard about where they served– he was in the Navy, he was in the Marines, he fought in Italy, he was at Iwo Jima, etc. Since the Sixties and Vietnam, that hasn’t been an experience for most American men.