07/02/2013 10:19 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

What Gettysburg Means to My Family


One hundred fifty years ago this week, Union and Confederate forces fought one of the most decisive battles in world history in around the fields and hills of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. More than 51,000 soldiers from both sides suffered casualties in the battle, which marked the turning point of the Civil War and a defeat for the Confederacy from which it never recovered. The battle also inspired President Abraham Lincoln to offer a "few appropriate remarks" five months later during his famous Gettysburg Address, in which he dedicated the cemetery where many of the Union dead lay buried.

My family has long had a connection to the Battle of Gettysburg, and this week I'll be taking my wife and children to observe the 150th commemoration of the battle. In July 1863, my grandfather (yes, my grandfather!) fought in the battle, was wounded five times, and by a miracle, survived his wounds and subsequent internment in a POW hospital.

Our family's connection didn't end with my grandfather's near tragic encounter with enemy musketry and artillery. Before his death in 1998, my father attended every major anniversary of the battle, including the 50th anniversary in 1913, the "Last Reunion of the Blue and Gray" in 1938, the 100th anniversary in 1963, and with me in tow, the 125th anniversary in 1988. This week, I'll bring my own two sons to Gettysburg to continue a family tradition that has now itself become a part of history.

As I tour the battlefield with my two sons, I know they'll ask me the inevitable question with all the bluntness kids usually muster when probing difficult issues -- "did your grandpa fight on the good side?"

My grandfather, you see, was a soldier in the Confederate army. A native of Virginia, his unit participated in the famous Pickett's Charge on July 3, 1863, and to prove it, our family still possesses his ammunition sack, soaked in dried blood stains.

My children have visited the battlefield before, and love climbing the vistas on Little Round Top or tunneling beneath the massive boulders of Devil's Den. But as with all kids, they naturally want to know the "right and wrongs" behind the Civil War. How then to explain the Confederate cause and why their great-grandfather fought under its flag?

I've looked to many sources for guidance on how to respond to their questions, but the answers are as numerous and conflicting as those who offer opinions. Some argue that the Confederate cause was about more than preserving slavery, and that there were other, more honorable reasons for fighting, including the call to preserve states' rights and protect the southern homeland and way of life. Others -- especially historians who've written in the last 20 years -- cite documentary evidence demonstrating that the sole if not principal reason for southern insurrection was indeed the preservation of slavery.

This Wednesday afternoon, July 3, thousands of visitors will retrace the steps of the soldiers in Pickett's Division as they charged up the slope of Cemetery Ridge, and we will be among them. As I retrace my grandfather's steps and reflect on the solemnity of that moment, I think I'll know what to say to my children.

First, I'll tell them that it's important for people today to bear witness to what the soldiers from both sides did and how they suffered and sacrificed for their beliefs and sense of patriotism.

I'll acknowledge that my grandfather lived in a different time, and that people then thought differently -- even if sometimes wrongly -- about moral issues that today are crystal clear to us.

But I'm also going to tell them I believe that slavery was the cause of the war, and that in any age, it is and will always be an abomination against human rights and dignity.

Though I was born in Virginia and am proud to be a native son, I'll tell my children that I hope I would not have chosen the Confederate side had I been living then. While many admire General Robert E. Lee because he didn't abandon his fellow Virginians, I'll point out that many southerners took a moral stand against slavery and fought for the preservation of the Union. General George Thomas, a native Virginian, took just such a stand even though his family disowned him, and went on to command Union armies throughout the war.

More importantly, I'll tell them that raising any words or symbols that are hurtful to our fellow Americans is wrong and disrespectful. We must treat everyone with the same decency we would expect others to show us. Isn't that, after all, one of the principles for which thousands of soldiers died for on the fields of Gettysburg?

Even an old Confederate war horse thought so. Before he passed away, my father published his memoirs, aptly titled, Confederate Son. In the book, he recounts that he was just a boy of seven when his father died. He recalls how his father and uncle, another Gettysburg veteran, used to sit on the porch on summer evenings and talk about the war and reflect on Gettysburg. As a young boy, my father admits he wished the South had won the war. But as he grew older, and especially after he served as a United States Marine in World War Two, his attitude changed.

He wrote, "I realize now that it was best that the Confederacy hadn't won. The defeat at Gettysburg was the beginning of the end of slavery. It was all for the best that the South lost that war, for it abolished slavery, reunited our nation, and made us strong."

That was how my father responded to my questions during our many trips to Gettysburg when I was a boy. It will be the same answer I'll give my own two sons as we pay homage to those who fought at Gettysburg 150 years ago this week.

John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story," How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children (Nicasio Press 2010). For more information about family storytelling, visit the authors' website and blog at
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