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Ballots or bullets: America’s democracy 1863 to 2015

One lesson that most of the world has learned is that ballots are preferable to bullets for resolving disputes over ideas and choosing national leaders.  American democracy has an amazing and admirable history of peaceful transitions of power after presidential elections. Yet there was one very big and tragic exception which resulted in the deaths of more than 700,000 Americans – The American Civil War.   In 1861 no peaceful solution could be found to resolve the decades-long conflict over slavery and states rights.  One side or the other would prevail in a contest decided on battlefields across the nation littered with bodies of young Americans.

The War was brutal and bloody. In this article we will explore a fascinating part of this war which continues to this day.   From 1861 to 1865 it was Blue versus Gray.  Now, in today’s politics we see Red state versus Blue state.  As Civil War enthusiasts we have both spent many hours walking the fields of Gettysburg National Battlefield Park and have read many books on this epic battle.  What strikes us is that throughout this three-day contest –  the largest battle ever on this continent – there were countless encounters between Northern and Southern troops that mirror today’s national political warfare.

Fought from July 1 to July 3 in 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest (more than 50,000 casualties) battle of the American Civil War.   On the first day the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (Red State) collided with the Union Army of the Potomac (Blue State) along the ridges and fields just north of the quaint little Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.  Early on in the action on July 1 the 6th Wisconsin regiment squared off against the 2nd and 42nd Mississippi.  Both the Blue State Wisconsin soldiers and the Red State Mississippi soldiers fought for several hours of bloody combat, with the Wisconsin boys coming out on top and capturing a large number of Mississippi troops in an unfinished railroad cut west of town. 

In the 2012 Presidential elections, Wisconsin and Mississippi squared off again.  Wisconsin gave Obama the advantage over Romney 1,620,985 votes to 1,407,966.  In Mississippi voters gave a decided edge to Mitt Romney in 2012, 710,746 to 562,949.  

As the hot afternoon of July 1, 1863 wore on, each side poured more troops into the battle. Thousands were killed or wounded.  By day’s end the Blue State troops of the Union Army of Potomac had been routed through the town of Gettysburg (but rallied on the hills and heights south of town).  The Confederates of the Red States chased the Union troops through Gettysburg. Soldiers from Alabama, Arkansas, North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Louisiana readied themselves for two more days of battle. The Blue States – New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Delaware – rushed their best soldiers into the fray.  

The afternoon of July 2, 1863 saw some of the most desperate fighting of the Civil War.  Confederate troops from Red States such as Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Mississippi viciously attacked Union troops from Blue States such as Maine, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Vermont.  In one of the most crucial contests, the 20th Maine regiment made a gallant bayonet charge against troops from Alabama – a charge that secured the Union left and perhaps saved the Union army from defeat.

In the 2008 Presidential race Obama received 421,923 votes in Maine while McCain received 295,273 Maine votes.  By contrast that year, McCain received 1,266,546 votes in Alabama while Obama got 813,479 Alabama votes.  Likewise in 2012 Obama would win Maine decisively while his opponent, Mitt Romney would swamp Obama in Alabama.

Another dramatic moment on July 2, 1863 occurred just before the famed Irish Brigade went into action.  The Irish Brigade was composed of mostly Irish-American troops from Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.  Just before going into combat these Blue State troops were given absolution by their chaplain, Father William Corby (who would later go on to become president of Notre Dame University).  In an emotional scene the men dropped to their knees and Father Corby reminded them that the Catholic Church would refuse Christian burial to any soldier who turned his back on the enemy and deserted his flag.  The absolution was then given.  According to Major St. Clair Mulholland, commander of the 116th Pennsylvania, “It was awe-inspiring.”

A few minutes later the Irish Brigade would engage in deadly combat against Red State troops from Georgia and South Carolina in a wheat field that would change hands several times throughout that dark day.

In both 2008 and 2012, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania overwhelming supported the Democratic nominee for president while Georgia and South Carolina voted decisively for the Republican presidential nominee in elections.

Despite several close calls throughout July 2, 1863, the Union line south of Gettysburg held firm.   Confederate General Robert E. Lee had come close, but his Red State troops could not break the grip the Blue State troops had on the high ground.  On July 3, 1863 Robert E. Lee would make one last try to break the Union line – a massive frontal assault on the Union center.  An attack that has gone down in history as Pickett’s Charge.

In one of the key moments of Pickett’s Charge we see Blue State troops from the 12th New Jersey decimate soldiers from Mississippi in front of the small farmhouse and barn owned by a free African-American man by the name of Abraham Bryan.  One hundred and forty nine years later, Blue State New Jersey would give President Obama 2,122,786 votes to 1,478,088 to Mitt Romney.  That same year, Mississippi voters chose Romney over Obama – 710,746 to 562,949.

The bloody repulse of Lee’s troops at the Bryan farmhouse and the stone wall to the south marked the end of the Battle of Gettysburg.  It also marked the high tide of the Confederacy.  Never again would Lee’s army launch such a large invasion of the north.  It was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.  Less than two years later, Lee would surrender his army at Appomattox.

Just as America was divided then, so too is it divided now – by region, by state, by ideology, by culture. The one thing to celebrate is that we are using ballots instead of bullets to decide political matters.   When you look at all the violence in the world today, America’s contentious yet peaceful way to settle political disputes is something very big to celebrate.

Scruggs is a native Marylander, Vietnam veteran and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.  Marcone is a native New Yorker who has lived in Virginia since 1993 and is president of Ox Hill Leadership Tours.

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