Wednesday, July 20, 2005

In great deeds something abides

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.

I can't escape the Civil War, recently. Specifically, the Battle of Gettysburg. For some reason it keeps coming to me -- there is some great lesson for me in it all, so I'm trying to learn and listen.

It started innocently, with a phone call from my brother, asking advice regarding a mutual friend who has been seeing apparitions near Gettysburg. [That is a fascinating story in itself, but not the subject of my post.] Anyway, that phone call began a series of 'Gettysburg facts' over the last few weeks, related to Providence at the battle. I guess I'd never realized the level of Divine intervention, not only in the battle, but in the exact preparation of persons and events for the battle. Phenomenal and amazing. I now have a list of over 14 specific things, that, if any single one of them would have been different, the outcome of the battle would have been different.

One aspect of this Divine intervention is the story of Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, under General Vincent. Chamberlain's story is riveting: theological student, fluent in the biblical languages, brilliant mind...who sensed the call to sign up, and mastered military prowess in the process. By no accident, he drilled the 20th Maine into one of the most disciplined units in the war, training them in technique and perseverance. And, again no Divine timing, they force-marched 24 miles through the night to get to Gettysburg [by the morning of the 2nd day]. Then, they *coincidentally* marched right to the most strategic place on the battlefield, without orders. Following their intrepid General Vincent, they went straight to Little Round Top -- which had been left unprotected -- and took up a vulnerable position on the left Union flank. Vincent immediately grasped the crucial nature of the position, and told Chamberlain to 'hold the ground at all hazards,' i.e. hold it till the death. In less than 10 minutes, they were attacked.

The little 20th Maine held this position against all odds, 3-1 or 4-1 odds, with little sleep, and not enough ammunition. Taking 35 percent casualties, they yet held the line, Chamberlain wounded, leaning on his sword to stand and inspire the men. During the fight, the 20th performed two extremely difficult maneuvers, under fire...eventually sweeping the field, charging with fixed bayonets when their ammo ran out, capturing twice their fighting numbers in prisoners -- battle hardened Alabama boys yielding to a thin blue line that had no ammunition! In retrospect, had they cracked, had they not succeeded, the Union flank would have rolled up...the Battle of Gettysburg potentially lost.

Here is a snippet of the battle, in Chamberlain's words:
The enemy seemed to have gathered all their energies for their final assault. We had gotten our thin line into as good a shape as possible, when a strong force emerged from the scrub wood in the valley, as well as I could judge, in two lines in echelon by the right, and, opening a heavy fire, the first line came on as if they meant to sweep everything before them. We opened on them as well as we could with our scanty ammunition snatched from the field.
It did not seem possible to withstand another shock like this now coming on. Our loss had been severe. One-half of my left wing had fallen, and a third of my regiment lay just behind us, dead or badly wounded. At this moment my anxiety was increased by a great roar of musketry in my rear, on the farther or northerly slope of Little Round Top, apparently on the flank of the regular brigade, which was in support of Hazlett's battery on the crest behind us. The bullets from this attack struck into my left rear, and I feared that the enemy might have nearly surrounded the Little Round Top, and only a desperate chance was left for us. My ammunition was soon exhausted. My men were firing their last shot and getting ready to “club” their muskets.
It was imperative to strike before we were struck by this overwhelming force in a hand-to-hand fight, which we could not probably have withstood or survived. At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward upon the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy's first line threw down their arms and surrendered. An officer fired his pistol at my head with one hand, while he handed me his sword with the other. Holding fast by our right, and swinging forward our left, we made an extended “right wheel,” before which the enemy's second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.

Some of Chamberlain's men, and some of the captured Alabama boys, said that the ghost of General Washington fought with Chamberlain that day. Who knows about that? Simply reading the recorded destiny at work in Chamberlain is incredible, on its own. It is easy to see that God prepared him 'for such a moment as this' -- an Esther who changed history in the court of death. His acts on the battlefield were more than courageous, they were inspired.

One military analyst said this about Chamberlain's actions:
When I consider all that Gettysburg represents, the battle comes down to a few key lessons. But perhaps the most important occurred on the second day. Col. Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine were the extreme flank of the Union Army, and as the afternoon sun of July 2 began to fade into evening, the 14th Alabama gathered itself for one last assault on the rear of the Little Round Top. If the 20th Maine gave way, the Confederates would literally have been in position to roll up the side.

Chamberlain's genius was manifested that day when he demonstrated a keen understanding of the moment – an understanding of such clarity that few will experience it in a lifetime. Faced with insurmountable odds, he could not stand and fight, for he would be overwhelmed, and he could not retreat, for that would expose the entire army's flank. So, he ordered 'fix bayonets' and swept a superior foe from the field, leading a charge, which became immortal. The lesson? Audacity and courage of conviction. Providence willing, none of us will face such a supreme moment. But, if we do, knowing the story of Little Round Top may just be the insight, the lesson, that pulls us through. We speak and write about core values, but these men left a legacy that transcends our poor attempts to verbalize and give meaning. A lesson in leadership to which we should all aspire.

Amen to that!

But I think that the final word, the final lesson is best given in the words of Chamberlain himself. On October 3rd, 1889 he spoke at Gettysburg, in dedicating the Maine monuments. There he tried to describe the immortal valor, the sacrificial deeds that remain, long after their performance:
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.

Wow. 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.

The good that we do, for the kingdom, will never die. Our prayers live before the throne. Our faithful actions endure throughout generations, echoing the Name in which they were done, continuing the great work for which they were offered...



The Lazy Philosopher said... we get to hear the "fascinating story"?

Loy Mershimer said... would be neat to share, but I can't, right now. Two reasons:

1. It's not my story, and
2. The end of the story is not yet written.

If there comes such a time where I am permitted to share, in a sensitive, private manner, I will.

Basically though, you can research many Gettysburg ghost stories, and this fits that model, with a few more steroids...


winston7000 said...

Loy, the story, of course, that most comes to mind is Leonidas and the Battle of Thermopylae holding the pass with a vastly outnumbered group of Spartans against the Persian army. By stretching our imaginations to include the Divine, we can see the eventual need for a Greece that would endure until the time of Paul's arrival. And how Greek became the common language of the Mediterranean during this period. And the Center of the Eastern Church.

But I am more struck by the fight of the Israelites (Exodus 17, 8-13 against the forces of Moses held up his arms and then had them propped up so that the Israelites could vanquish their foe.

These stories retain their powerful, underlying truths that says man is more than man appears to be.

Maybe we chatter too much to hear what really goes on around us. That is, until one day almost stepping in front of a speeding bus or cab we feel the invisbile hand suddenly pull us back to the curb.

--John Hetman

Loy Mershimer said...

Excellent thoughts, John.

As I read your post I was reminded of the accounts of angels coming down to fight with the Maccabees, as the Jews fought against incredible odds to defend their land and Temple from defilement.

Of course, this miraculous conflict ended with the cleansing of the Temple, its rededication and re-lighting -- the Hanukkah miracle. But I find interesting the textual accounts of angelic intervention in conflict.

Of course, this brings to mind the passage in 2 Kings 6 where the prophet Elisha, faced with overwhelming odds, feared nothing, praying that YHVH would open the eyes of his servant:

So one night the king of Aram sent a great army with many chariots and horses to surround the city. When the servant of the man of God got up early the next morning and went outside, there were troops, horses, and chariots everywhere.

"Ah, my lord, what will we do now?" he cried out to Elisha.

"Don't be afraid!" Elisha told him. "For there are more with us than be with them!" Then Elisha prayed, "O LORD, open his eyes and let him see!" The LORD opened his servant's eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire.

And, back to Gettysburg: At all *justice* battles, at great battles at the hinges of human history, there seems to be a pattern of divine intervention, where humans [seemingly] either encounter supernatural forces and/or are raised to heights of supernatural heroism.

Gettysburg definitely fits that model. More than mere men fought those days in July.

Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, a dedicated Christian, when marching his men through the night on a forced march just to get to the battle by the second day, said that it was a "night on which the powers of the other world drew near..." He and his men could sense the powers of another world assisting that march.

And then when they got to battle, their exploits are legendary. And more reports of supernatural occurrences...

I won't get into those reports, where many of the 15th Alabama and 20th Maine claimed to see the form of George Washington leading the fight [so many that the War Department investigated following the fight] but just to quote one soldier from the 15th Alabama, who wrote a letter to Chamberlain after the war:

“Dear Sir: I want to tell you of a little passage in the battle of Round Top, Gettysburg concerning you and me, which I am now glad of. Twice in that fight I had your life in my hands. I got a safe place between two rocks, and drew bead fair and square on you. You were standing in the open behind the center of your line, full exposed. I knew your rank by your uniform and your actions, and I thought it a mighty good thing to put you out of the way. I rested my gun on the rock and took steady aim. I started to pull the trigger, but some queer notion stopped me. Then I got ashamed of my weakness and went through the same motions again. I had you, perfectly certain. But that same queer something shut right down on me. I couldn’t pull the trigger, and gave it up - that is, your life. I am glad of it now, and hope you are.”

The account it fascinating on many levels, but seems to support the idea that when humans reach up to great deeds of honor, heaven stoops to fight with us...sometimes. Or, heaven raises us to a true, new human status.

One rabbi put it this way, when commenting on the Divine side of Maccabeen freedom:

A mitzvah fulfilled with mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice, is imbued with a supernatural quality. When man rises above material pleasures and fights off the seductions of Hellenism, when man’s love of G-d, Torah, and Mitzvot inspire him to overcome all obstacles, when man lives up to his own majestic divine image, then man himself is performing a miracle. It is perfectly natural to pursue the desires of the body. But man, unlike animal, can break the laws of nature. Man can transcend physical nature and activate latent spiritual potential by mustering his strength and exercising his free will. It is no surprise that a mitzvah fulfilled with spiritual muscle has supernatural staying power. A miracle of light is the natural result of the Maccabee’s heroic stand against darkness.

Perhaps this rabbi gives humans a bit too much credit [the whole miracle is by grace, where God grants specific mercy and intervention], but I think the underlying point is taken: when humans heroically stand against darkness, spiritual and supernatural light is the result.

There is light that occurs when a human dares to stand against his or her own darkness, and against the darkness that would sweep over the planet.

Herein is the true mystery of our existence -- true human identity, locked in Christ, the Holy, Divine Warrior.

As the DSS War Scroll says:

"For the Lord is holy, and the king of glory is with us -- a people of saints. Mighty men and a host of angels are among those mustered with us, the mighty One of war is in our congregation, and the host of His spirits is with our steps."

We have no idea of what we could be...until we stand against the odds, until we stand on the side of good and God in the cosmic war, standing against the forces of evil, the principalities and powers of darkness in high places.

This is our destiny. If we stand, heaven stands with us...for we are standing with heaven!

Here we must note that not all heroes survive. But it is far better to die, sword in hand, for Heaven, than to live, comfortable and kingly, in a sell-out land...

Everyone must die. That is not a choice. But it is given to us the manner in which we die: As heroes in a cause beyond ourselves, or as ciphers in service of self -- the dark *spirit of the age.*

For those who live and die as heroes of heaven, something remains. Or, as one hero said: "A noble death is a gift that none is too poor to buy."

And as Chamberlain sleeps with his fathers, his deeds and words still echo: 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!

It is a challenge of possibility for the spirit and soul. It is a battle cry...going forth for our generation.

For the battle is now being fought on electronic fields and in the hearts and minds of beautiful humans. We dare not be numbed to our destiny!

winston7000 said...

That quite an elegant and eloquent essay, Loy. It brings home the hope of redemption in a fallen world. Fallen, through its own seductions and those of the Powers of Darkness to sell out its soul cheaply. It's here now, active and thriving in the United States under the guise often of misplaced compassion, regression into utter stupidity, and self-focus. One need only to look at our consummate obsession with sexuality to realize just how cheaply we can be bought and sold. And all that remains in the end is dust falling through our fingers.

Heroes and heroines are here, too, as they always are, moving mostly inconspicuously among us. Like Colonel Chamberlain they will emerge when grace summons them under the banner of Michael, Prince of the Archangels.

We have fought this battle before, Loy. Sometimes with troops. Sometimes by a sole man, profusely sweating in a garden after a Pascal supper with his followers. About to undergo an ordeal that he knew for many years waited for him.

There is ultimate courage in that lonely voice, abandoned it would seem by all. Yet ultimately triumphant because His focus was on us, not himself.

No greater love hath any man....

--John Hetman

Loy Mershimer said...

I couldn't agree more, John. You 'get it,' without doubt.

All these political and religious games are not just games -- hearts and minds are being bought and sold, history wasted and the future bartered in a crucible of *comfort.*

A human is a paradox: willing to sell a birthright on one hand, for comfort, and yet on the other destined to be so, so much more!

In every human is a hero, one that can live beyond him or her self; yet in every human is an idol, where self is served, and the soul sold for just one more moment of comfort...pleasure or 'happiness.'

If we define true heroism in these spiritual terms, as living beyond one's self, for divine purposes...then every hero of every pre-Christian age looked forward to the One who wept in the Garden, and every hero since looks back to Him, for power. For He is the One who conquered the cosmic forces with which we struggle, the principalities and powers which build the altars on which souls are bought and sold.

The Cross of Christ is the epicenter of human history: It shows us our hope and future, and, in grace, this future can reach to every person and define their present existence...

As a hero!

God grant the offer is accepted...

Anonymous said...

Chamberlain is one of my heros, but I heard an interesting argument by a historian regarding the importance of the 20th Maine's position. I think that in light of Chamberlain's actions that day, and subsequent writings on the topic, the fighting on Culps and Cemetary Hills tends to get overshadowed. In The Killer Angels, and Gettysburg, there is no mention of the heavy fighting that took place on the Union right. This historian also expressed his doubt that a couple of Alabama units, tired and worn out from numerous charges up the hill, would be able to roll up the whole Union line. I do not doubt the courage or importance of Chamberlain's actions, but I thought that this historian made an interesting, and important, point.

Loy Mershimer said...


You raise several issues in your post:

1. First and largest: The fighting on Culp's Hill and the right of the Federal line. Is this often overlooked? Undoubtedly. There was incredible heroism on both sides -- and the Union line held almost by "accident" here, where several "coincidences" just happened to occur -- backed by such hellacious rifle and musket fire that the trees from ground to 15 feet in the air were stripped of all leaves and bark. Some of the bravest and most battle-tested Confederate troops engaged in this fighting, marching willingly to their death. So this work on the Union right was hot and crucial, blood of heroes on every rock and rill.

2. But just because the action on the Federal right doesn't get the press it deserves does NOT mean that the work of Chamberlain and others [securing Little Round Top and the left] is overrated. Given the state and shape of the battlefield that day, if Chamberlain hadn't been there, the left would have turned. And had it turned, LRT would have been lost, at least. Don't forget that as it was, Chamberlain and the 20th spent the night on the slopes of BRT trying to dislodge enemy there. And this after securing LRT in hours of non-stop, desperate fighting -- after a night-long forced march!

3. Any historian who tries to develop a case that the Union line would have somehow been intact if Chamberlain [20th Maine] had crumbled is suspicious, imo. He or she is probably affected by that terrible disease called "Ivory Tower Academia Dementia." It runs rampant in college professors -- too many of them are infected with it. A word to the wise: not all historians are created equal.

4. If LRT had been lost on the 2nd day, forget the Federal line holding the next day! Pure fantasy to pretend otherwise. Meade would have had to retire, leaving the field to fight another day -- and all the implications for partitioning [of the country] that such de facto Conderate victory would mean.

5. Killer Angels is a limited novel and Gettysburg is a movie adaptation of it -- vastly more limited still, lol. Starring Martin Sheen, no less, lol! 'Nuf said on that...

6. It was more than just "a couple Alabama units" facing Chamberlain. Members of the 4th and 47th Alabama attacked, with the 500 man 15th Alabama, supported by one Georgia and other regiments from Hood and Longstreet's divisions.

The 20th Maine entered the fight with 358 men, of which 200 remained for the final, desperate charge. In the charge, these 200 took @ 400 prisoners, from 5 different Confederate regiments.

These numbers give a factual sense of the magnitude of Chamberlain's actions that day...a sense of the assault force before them – battle hardened regiments from Hood’s and Longstreet’s divisions yielding to a thin blue Federal line bereft of ammunition!

Any historian that doubts the intent and ability of these Confederate units to roll up the Union left that day -- at least to the taking of LRT and BRT -- really need to be in another line of work, imo.

7. Any historical work that rightfully emphasizes and shines new light on the heroism on the Union right, I'll welcome with open arms. But it in no way helps the valor of the right to try and be revisionist with the undeniable facts on the Union left -- Chamberlain and 20th Maine at LRT that day were divine appointments, nothing less. In my humble opinion, of course! :-)

At any rate, great to hear from another Civil War aficionado!

Thanks for your post and thoughts!