Integrity, Perseverance, and Gettysburg

(August 2013, originally printed in 280 Living, Birmingham, AL)

July 1-3, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle marked the end of the Southern army’s invasion of the north, and served, according to many, as the turning point of the Civil War. It perhaps was the biggest battle of the war, and perhaps the biggest battle ever to occur in the continental United States. Two great armies collided in the orchards and woods and on the fields and hills that surrounded this little Pennsylvania town, leaving over 56,700 casualties or deaths.

I found myself walking this battlefield in the days between Christmas and New Years of 2002. It was a particularly dark time in my life, a dark time that had lasted for nearly three years. I had spent Christmas with a friend and his family north of Philadelphia, and as I made my way home, I thought I would visit the grand battlefield to see the site in person. A foot of snow had fallen the previous night, and so the field of terrible valor was covered in a majestic blanket of purity the day I stepped upon it. I arrived early in the morning, and so there were few other footprints to taint the picturesque landscape. I stood on the spot where Generals Lee and Longstreet (of the South) watched their men walk nearly a mile across a broad field on the third day of the battle, on a frontal assault of the center of the Northern line.

If you know anything of the battle, the third day was a slaughter. The “charge” began at three in the afternoon. The Southern Infantry did not run forward, they marched, walked, slowly, in steady time. They marched straight toward the center of the Northern line, into the face of a massive artillery barrage. They did not stop until they reached the line. 13,000 men marched forward. Half were killed, wounded, or captured. Entire divisions were lost.

I slogged a quarter of a mile up the long slow snow-covered incline. I felt naked, exposed, cold. How terrible to have done so with artillery shells and bullets raining down. I envisioned a company of men marching forward, following the voice of their commander, never turning or quaking. These men who fell had no idea the outcome of the battle, much less the war. All they knew was that moment, and that day, their general had called upon them to march forward to do battle. I was awestruck by the perseverance and the integrity of these men, no matter their beliefs in the purpose of the fight, to obey and follow.

I distinctly heard that day to persevere with integrity through the darkest time of my life. I stood there for a time, breathing deeply, listening, praying. I soon returned to my car, made my way south to home, and resumed living my life. Six months later, I realized the darkness had lifted. Yet I credit those four hours at Gettysburg as the turning point, when my decision to persevere with integrity somehow emboldened and lightened my heart to resume and engage with intentionality the events and circumstances of my life.

Perhaps you are engaged in a summer of discontent that feels like the brutality of war on the inside. I invite you to persevere, to hang in there, with integrity, in the trueness of who you are and called to be. The tide may yet turn.

Paul Johnson is a professionally licensed marriage and family therapist, professionally licensed counselor and nationally certified counselor. Contact Paul at LifePractical Counseling today.