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Lange: Gettysburg

07/04/12 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) Vermont wasn't a state yet at the time of the Declaration of Independence, so there weren't many fireworks here.  But writer, storyteller and commentator Willem Lange says we sure made up for it four score and seven years later, at the Battle of Gettysburg.

(Lange) Almost every year on the Fourth of July, if we're able, Mother and I sit down to watch the long film Gettysburg, usually with some friends. July 4th is the day Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, shattered by three days of fighting at Gettysburg culminating in Pickett's Charge, began to withdraw toward the Potomic River. We take a break halfway through the film for a quick supper, and watch the last of it as the darkening sky around us reverberates with explosions celebrating the country's Declaration of Independence.

The first Independence Day was no big deal for Vermont, as the state hadn't yet been admitted to the Union - though during the Revolution, it fought for it at the same time it formed a republic independent of it. It's doing much the same thing today with health care reform: We'd love to join the rest of you, but if you can't get it together, well, we're gonna try to go it alone.

The Second Vermont Brigade, commanded at Gettysburg by General George Stannard, had a lot to do with General Lee's retreat. The day before, July 3rd, it had been positioned at the left-center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge to meet Pickett's charge. I've walked the course of that catastrophe a few times, toward the famous clump of trees at the Union center, and could see clearly the sloping field where the Vermonters waited.

The right-hand brigades of Pickett's division charged straight for the Second Vermont, but suddenly veered left toward the clump of trees. Stannard spotted the opportunity, swung two regiments in a pivoting movement, and poured fire at close range into the flank of the attacking Virginians.

The commanding general, George Meade, later said, "There was no individual body of men who rendered a greater service at a critical moment then the comparatively raw troops commanded by General Stannard." General Abner Doubleday agreed: "It is to General Stannard...that the country is mainly indebted for the repulse of the enemy's charge and the final victory of July 3 . [His] brilliant flank movement... greatly contributed to, if it did not completely insure, our final success."

So today's a day to commemorate that fearful battle for what Lincoln later called "a new birth of freedom"; to picture the survivors writing letters home to Vermont, telling of the struggle and the deaths of their friends, and perhaps wondering if the folks back home had enough help to get the hay in.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, remembering and giving thanks.
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