Conversations With the Dead in The Wheatfield

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Sunday, June 15, 2014 0 comments

by Michael Homula

Last week, I shared the story of Father William Corby blessing the famed Irish Brigade moments before they plunged headlong into The Wheatfield to check the Confederate advance. The fight for The Wheatfield at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, has long been one of the most confusing and misunderstood engagements. I will make no attempt to clear up the confusion in a blog post (you will have to sign up for one of our Biblical Truth at Gettysburg retreats to get that).

The Wheatfield stands out as one of the bloodiest places in American military history. In only a few hours of fighting, the 19 acre field of wheat changed hands between the North and South six times with some 4,000 casualties. The veterans who survived called it a “whirlpool” of battle because regiments on both sides were seemingly sucked into a vortex of confusion, chaos and carnage.

The monument to the 27th Connecticut in The Wheatfield

The Wheatfield is one of my favorite places on the battlefield to spend time studying the fighting, reading my Bible and praying. Mostly I sit in quiet reflection, listening to the voices of the dead.

Now before you think I have lost my mind, allow me to explain.

One of the best quotes about the value of history comes from historian David Harlan. In his book The Degradation of American History, Harlan reminds us, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” Not many academic historians hold to that view anymore, and we lose a proper view of history as a result.

I am repeatedly reminded of this when I walk the ground of The Wheatfield at Gettysburg. The opportunities for life-changing conversations abound, if we have ears to hear (Matthew 11:15). The Wheatfield, for me, is the best place to have the conversation Harlan describes. The “whirlpool” recalled by those who survived now sits in peace and tranquility ready to engage us.

As I try to imagine what these men experienced, much more personal, far more disturbing questions come to dominate my thoughts. “Could you steel yourself to do what these men did?” I find myself wondering. “Could you endure what they endured?” More importantly, “Could you witness such carnage and still believe in mankind? Could you help to inflict such destruction and still believe in yourself? Could you experience such suffering and still believe in God?” Above all, “Are you devoted to any principle, any cause, any person, any Master enough to give,” in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion?”

The short answer to all of the above is, “I don’t know.” I pray to God that my faith would not falter, but I just don’t know.

What I do know about myself is not reassuring: I too often struggle with even the most trivial acts of self-denial, the most mundane expressions of laying down my life that pale in comparison to the price paid by so many who fought there.

But these are not the only voices that I hear in The Wheatfield at Gettysburg. There were countless other voices raised during the battle itself. We don’t have audio recordings of these moments, perhaps thankfully, so most of these cries from the heart are known only to God. However, a precious few have survived. They come in the soldiers’ own words, conversations and confessions made to peers, not necessarily uttered for us to hear today. The testimony of an unnamed and unknown soldier who bore witness to a very different kind of response to the indescribable happenings in The Wheatfield.

We only know of this soldier through the recollection of Confederate Captain George Hillyer of the 9th Georgia Infantry. When the fighting at Gettysburg began on 1 July, the men of the 9th GA were twenty-nine miles away. They marched all day and all night to arrive on the field just before dawn on 2 July. After spending the morning laying around in woods just west of The Wheatfield, Hillyer’s company was in the middle of the Confederate Attack on the Union left and found itself face to face with the Irish Brigade in The Wheatfield.

The Georgians were forced to withdraw and Hillyer, along with his exhausted and bloodied company, spent the night within earshot of the field where, only a few hours earlier, they had fought and killed and watched their friends be killed. As the sun went down neither side held the field and the now trampled wheat, covered in blood and dead and dying men, became a type of no man's land separating the Union and Confederate lines.

In the midst of that hellish scene, Hillyer was amazed to hear one of the men between the lines begin to sing. Hillyer wrote there were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.” The song they heard had been written four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore. It was later set to music and published in 1831:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

When I sit in the middle of The Wheatfield today, this is the voice I hear. Taking the past seriously, especially as those who follow Christ, means putting our own lives to the test (James 1:2-4). The conversations at Gettysburg, in places like The Wheatfield, do just that, pressing us with hard, uncomfortable questions: What do we value? In what do we hope? Where do we find meaning?

The answers, etched in granite stone and marble on monuments dotting the fields of Gettysburg – written by the blood of men who gave their lives – are noble. No doubt. However, they are also earthbound and temporary.

Vastly more challenging, far more convicting, much more comforting, supremely hopeful is the response on the lips of the unknown soldier whose voice one can still hear if we have ears to hear. Sung in darkness amid death and despair, it is both historical occurrence and spiritual metaphor, an echo of God’s invitation to a bruised and hurting world.

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel…