Gettysburg is an important part of our collective family story

There’s not a lot of information available about my great- grandfather, John Jacob Silbernagel. No letters or journals of his exist, and few mentions of him in old newspapers.

But I have a pretty clear idea of how he spent the first day of July 150 years ago. It wasn’t pleasant.

Jacob, as he was known, was a member of the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, a regiment of the famed Iron Brigade of the Union Army.

The regiment was in the thick of the fighting at Gettysburg, the great battle that began July 1, 1863. Here’s how the regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Rufus R. Dawes, described a portion of that day in a book he published 40 years later:

“We were receiving a fearfully destructive fire from the hidden enemy. Men who had been shot were leaving the ranks in crowds ... Meanwhile, the colors fell upon the ground several times but were raised again by the heroes of the color guard. Four hundred and twenty men started in the regiment from the turnpike fence, of whom, about two hundred and forty reached the railroad cut. Years afterward, I found the distance passed over to be one hundred and seventy-five paces.”

It’s unimaginable to me. Nearly half the regiment was killed or wounded during an advance of 175 yards that lasted about 15 minutes.

And this wasn’t the worst of the carnage. Other regiments on the Union side lost as many as 75 percent of their troops in a single charge, according to “Gettysburg, a Day-by-Day Account of the Greatest Battle of the Civil War,” by Time magazine. Some Confederate regiments lost more than 80 percent.

My great-grandfather wasn’t among the Sixth Wisconsin’s casualties that day. Although his discharge papers list a “slight wound” in a later battle, he continued to serve until the end of the war, almost two years later.

Descriptions of the Gettysburg battle say the Sixth Wisconsin was successful July 1 in temporarily halting the advance of Mississippi regiments that were moving toward the center of the town of Gettysburg. The Wisconsin regiment took hundreds of Confederates prisoner.

But the three-day battle at Gettysburg was a back-and-forth confrontation in which the front moved several times. The Sixth Wisconsin participated in several more fights through July 3, but none quite as brutal as on that first day. Many other horrific engagements involving other regiments occurred until the Confederates mounted their final, desperate attempt to overrun the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, in what’s now known as Pickett’s Charge. That bloody assault was repulsed, and the battle ended late on the evening of July 3. Then Gen. Robert E. Lee and his troops began retreating toward Virginia.

As we commemorate the 150th anniversary of that brutal battle, we should all recognize that Gettysburg is an important part of our family story — the American story.

Whether you have ancestors from the North or South, or even if your family arrived long after the Civil War ended, that great conflict is still part of our collective family history.

Gettysburg came at the midpoint of the Civil War. It marked the farthest north Lee and his army were able to penetrate, and it led to the gradual demise of Confederate fortunes.

Lee knew that the numbers were on the Union side. He had hoped that a decisive victory somewhere in Pennsylvania would so disillusion the citizens of the North that they would reject President Lincoln’s war policies and sue for peace. That would have allowed the Confederate States of America to truly become a separate nation. If that had occurred, North America would look much different today.

But things didn’t turn out as Lee had hoped. He was forced to return south with his army, and though the Confederates would win more battles over the next two years, they would never have the same offensive momentum they had in the early summer of 1863.

Also helping to turn the tide, on July 4, 1863, the city of Vicksburg, Miss., surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. As a result, Union forces had control of much of the Mississippi River and were winning on the western front.

Scholars have spent a century and a half dissecting both the political and military aspects of the Civil War and debating the reasons the war occurred. Was it primarily about slavery? Or was it about states’ rights and protecting an agrarian economy from the designs of the industrial North? About preserving the Union? If slavery was the issue, why did so many soldiers join the Confederacy, when fewer than 5 percent of whites in the South owned slaves?

I don’t know my great-grandfather’s views on slavery, or why he enlisted in the Union Army. But three months before Gettysburg, Lt. Col. Dawes gave a speech in his hometown in Ohio, which he later quoted in his book. He seemed to be speaking for all the Union troops. I like to believe Jacob Silbernagel agreed with his views:

“If there remains anyone in the Army who does not like the (Emancipation) Proclamation, he is careful to keep quiet about it ... Slavery is the chief source of wealth in the South, and the basis of their aristocracy, and my observation is that a blow at slavery hurts more than battalion volleys. It strikes at the vitals ... We like the Proclamation because it hurts the rebels. We like the Proclamation because it lets the world know what the real issue is ... We like the Emancipation Proclamation because it is right, and because it is the edict of our Commander in Chief, the President of the United States.”

Slavery has always been the great scandal in our family history, the sordid story many would prefer not to discuss. Our ancestors fought a civil war whose primary issue — at least according to Dawes — was slavery.

Gettysburg was the pivotal battle of that war. Remembering this important part of our collective family history should make us uncomfortable as we recognize that we have been far from perfect throughout our history, but grateful that we have not resorted to such violent means to solve our differences since.

Contact Bob Silbernagel at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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