George Will on History and Human Choices

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few days, you know that the 150th anniversary of the First Day of the Battle of Gettysburg is today. George Will has a piece commenting on the significance of human freedom in terms of how past events are decided. Contra German philosophers such as Hegel and Marx, who were hard determinists, Will points out that the choices made in space and time decide the events we study in history. Will also comments on Allen C. Guelzo’s new book Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, which I am looking forward to reading.

Gettysburg is a study in human choices, if anything is. The battle began when comparatively small units of Confederate and Union forces met on the outskirts of the town. Unlike many of the previous engagements, the beginning of the fight was disorganized, unplanned, and still filled with unknowns by the end of the day’s fighting. What would have occurred if Union Gen. John Buford’s cavalry had not defended the high ground south of the town against oncoming Confederates under Gen. Henry Heth? What would the effect on Confederate strategy have been if Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps captured the northern crest of Cemetery Hill, as Lee had ordered on the afternoon of the first day? And had Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain not understood the salient importance of his position on Little Round Top on the second day, would the fate of the Union have been altered?

As Winston Churchill wrote of the escape of the Goeben in the earliest days of the naval war in the Mediterranean in 1914, “the terrible Ifs accumulate” (The World Crisis, Vol. 1, chapter 11).

Here is a taste of Will’s piece, which you can read here.

. . . . Choices matter. They certainly did during the first three days of July 1863 at the town of 2,390 people seven miles north of the Mason-Dixon line. In “Intruder in the Dust,” William Faulkner famously invoked the tantalizing power of possibility:

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence. . . . That moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself.” 

But before what is remembered as Pickett’s Charge — mostly a brisk 19-minute walk — headed toward Cemetery Ridge, choices made by Lee and some of his generals had put victory beyond the reach of valor. They were, however, choices.

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