It's a great pleasure to be here today at the National Press Club. You welcomed me when I came here as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I appreciated your hospitality then, and I appreciate your inviting me to come again now that I am in a somewhat different role. When I spoke to you before it was about history, and I, like you, I am sure, have certainly had history much on my mind of late. I have a sense that I know many share of living at a critical moment in time, and, may I add, I also have a strong sense of gratitude for the strong leadership of our President through this crucial period.
And without any hint of bias, let me observe that the Vice President is no slouch either.
July 2nd, the day on which we gather, is a significant one in American history. It was on this day in 1776 that the Continental Congress voted that we would be free and independent. So significant was that moment that John Adams thought that July 2nd was the day we would commemorate. When he wrote to Abigail that there ought to be "pomp and parade" and "illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more," he was talking about July 2nd celebrations; but, of course, it is the 4th on which we have parades and fireworks, the 4th, the day on which the Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, the document that set forth in immortal words the founding ideals of this country: "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Our country's history has in many ways been the story of trying to live up to these noble ideals. Indeed, as Lincoln explained the Civil War it was a struggle to see whether a nation dedicated to these high principles could long endure. Exactly 139 years ago today, an event occurred that was pivotal in determining the endurance of this nation, and at the center of this event, which occurred on July 2, 1863, was the man I want to talk about today. He was a military hero, though that was not his training. He had studied to be a minister of the gospel, then became a college professor as a young man. His name was Joshua Chamberlain, and when the Civil War broke out, he was teaching rhetoric, oratory and modern languages at Bowdoin College in Maine.
As you will remember, the Civil War did not start out well for the Union. People in the North had expected there would be a quick victory, but the First Battle of Bull Run put an end to that thinking. The Northern Army had fled the battlefield at Manassas, departing in such a panic that a litter of canteens, muskets, and cartridge boxes were left behind. Desperate and mud-covered, northern troops fell back on Washington, and for months Union generals seemed to be in shock, unable to find the resolve to march against the enemy again.
By the spring of 1862, things were somewhat better. There were victories in the West and the Army of the Potomac moved once more into Confederate territory, but so timid was its commander, General George B. McClellan, that he ordered the forces under his command to retreat even after they had been victorious.
In July 1862, Lincoln put out a call to the states for 300,000 men to serve in the Federal Army, and one of those answering was Joshua Chamberlain. He sent a letter to Maine's governor, "I fear this war, so costly of blood and treasure," he wrote, "will not cease until the men of the north are willing to leave good positions and sacrifice the dearest personal interests to rescue our country from desolation." He was quite willing to admit that he was not deeply knowledgeable about military matters, but, he wrote the governor, "What I do not know in that line, I know how to learn."
Neither his wife nor his college was enthusiastic about his going to war, but Chamberlain secured a commission, and on August 8, 1862, became a lieutenant colonel in Maine's Twentieth Infantry Regiment. Moving by train and steamer, Chamberlain and the other men of the Twentieth arrived in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. at an inauspicious time: Union forces had suffered a second defeat at Bull Run and the city was reeling. Robert E. Lee began moving north, and Union troops, including the Twentieth Maine, followed in pursuit. The armies met at Antietam, where the Union halted Lee's advance and inflicted terrible losses on his army but did not destroy it. Three months later, in fact, the rebels defeated Union forces at Fredericksburg. "I am sick and tired of disaster," a Union soldier wrote to his mother. And then came another one, the defeat of the Union at Chancellorsville in May 1863.
The stage was now set for a battle that could decide the outcome of the war. Lee invaded the North for the second time, this time moving into Pennsylvania. The Federal army followed, its leaders no doubt concerned that another victory for the Confederacy, particularly in the North, might cause the Union war effort to collapse. Lee certainly had that hope, even that expectation. He said to one of his men, "If God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence."
Joshua Chamberlain was now in command of the Twentieth Maine, and although he could not have foreseen what July 2, 1863 held in store, he had prepared both himself and those he commanded for momentous events. He himself had become a student of the art of war, reading basic manuals as well as classical works. "I study, I tell you," he wrote to his wife Fannie, ". . . I am bound to understand every thing." Particularly after Antietam, he and Adelbert Ames, who preceded him as colonel of the Twentieth Maine, required daily drills of their citizen soldiers--men who had recently been fishermen and farmers and shopkeepers. "Hour by weary hour," writes one Chamberlain biographer, "four hours a day and more, the commands rang out in the Twentieth's camp." After Fredericksburg, Chamberlain called upon West Pointers in the Fifth Corps to conduct a series of seminars so that he and other officers could deepen their understanding of the strategy and tactics of war.
The Twentieth Maine marched toward Gettysburg. Twenty miles one day, twenty the next, eighteen the next. And they were exhausted, but disciplined, and they had the utmost trust in and affection for their colonel. Chamberlain had the calm and dignified bearing of a leader and he conveyed to his men what, in fact, he was--a man of honor and integrity who cared about them. One private said, "[He] is almost idolized by the whole regiment."
And so the Twentieth marched on, twenty-three miles, then twenty-six miles, and then they were at Gettysburg, where the great armies were arrayed, their lines stretching farther than the eye could see, sixty-five thousand men under Lee's command, 85,000 on the Union side.
General Daniel Sickles had been assigned to hold the Union left, but, thinking he knew better than those commanding him, he had shifted his troops so that the left flank and a hill called Little Round Top that overlooked the Union line were unattended. Four regiments were sent to fill in where Sickles should have been, including the Twentieth Maine, which was positioned on Little Round Top at the very end of the Union line and commanded to hold the ground at all costs.
The 4th Alabama regiment charged the hill, soon joined by parts of the Alabama 47th. Chamberlain quickly realized that these Confederates were not his only problem. Behind the 4th and the 47th was a flanking column, hooking around to his left. Were these troops to succeed in their effort to get around the Union left flank, they could fire on Union troops already under frontal assault. Writes one of Chamberlain's biographers, "Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy were never so close to victory."
Chamberlain ordered his men simultaneously to lengthen their line and to bend the end of it back at a right angle to meet the flanking Confederates. It was a brilliant move, one reflecting the study and thought that Chamberlain had given to maneuvering men on the field of battle. And the move was executed brilliantly by the men of the Twentieth, who were all the while under fire. It required "coolness as well as heat," Chamberlain later wrote. And it required training and discipline as well.
The Confederates charged the Twentieth again and again. In the withering fire, Chamberlain lost a third of his regiment. And then the men of the Twentieth ran out of ammunition. But they could not retreat. They had been told to hold their position at all costs. And so Chamberlain decided that the regiment would, without ammunition, charge the Confederate forces. Bent back as they were, they couldn't execute an ordinary charge. It would have to begin with the men on the left and gradually include the rest of the line in a great wheeling movement. Chamberlain explained the maneuver to his men, ordered them to fix bayonets, and down the slope they plunged.
The stunned Confederates fell back. Their ranks broke, and they ran for their lives. Little Round Top held and the Union prevailed at Gettysburg.
Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day, and when Lee's army finally surrendered in 1865, Ulysses S. Grant chose Chamberlain to receive the Confederate battle flags at Appomattox.
I tell you this story today partly because it is timely, partly because it is a good story, and partly because it offers a lesson that history often teaches us. Things didn't have to turn out as they did. They might have gone otherwise. What if Chamberlain's wife or his college had persuaded him to stay in Maine? What if he had not understood that war was a subject to be studied and battle an event to be prepared for? Would another man have been able to inspire his troops to charge forward armed only with bayonets?
Brave men and women remind us of the element of contingency in history. They remind us that things might have turned out otherwise. And this realization is crucial because it underlies understanding of how precious our freedom is and how well worth defending. Were we to lose it, liberty might not come our way again.
Surely this is an understanding that we should convey to the next generation, but time and again we receive reports that young people are woefully lacking in knowledge of the past. Recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed 57% of high school seniors scoring below basic on the U.S. History exam, meaning that a solid majority of students could not identify the significance of important people, places, and ideas in American history. An oft-cited survey of seventeen-year-olds showed how little they knew of the Civil War. Two-thirds could not identify the half-century in which it occurred. A survey of seniors at elite colleges and universities showed that only one out of five was familiar with the words of the Gettysburg Address. Significant numbers of those seniors thought that Ulysses S. Grant was a general in the Revolutionary War.
A West Virginia history professor has published a collection of history as some college students tell it. One student writes about "John F. Kennedy working closely with the Russians to solve the Canadian Missile Crisis." Another writes about "Martin Luther Junior's famous 'If I had a hammer speech.'" Another writes that "Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill and Truman were known as the 'Big Three.'"
There is a funny side to this, but it is also a serious problem. One way of addressing it is by establishing good standards for the teaching of history, but we are at least a decade into the standard setting process, and only about a fifth of the states have good standards. Even when well-conceived standards are in place, they require teachers who are well prepared to teach them, and this is an area that I think deserves special attention. Particularly in the early grades, teachers have often not studied history in college and even when they have, what they have learned about the American past may be insufficient.
I've spent some time recently reading books assigned in undergraduate history courses and in education courses across the nation, and I have come across some pretty surprising ideas, such as the notion that events like the Civil War, long thought significant, really don't matter very much. Union victory might have meant emancipation for African-Americans, one widely used book tells us, but they and working class Americans of every race were subsequently enslaved by capitalism.
Another idea I've encountered is that it is a mistake to study those we think of as leaders--men like Joshua Chamberlain, for example--because doing so perpetrates the myth that he represents something important to all of us--and there is nothing important to all of us. Our society consists of different groups with different interests, according to this view, and those who say otherwise are simply trying to make sure that the oppressed stay that way.
Still another idea I've come across is that the American story is a tale of sound and fury that doesn't signify very much. We haven't made progress, according to this thinking, not even in our technology, which we will likely discover doesn't really fulfill our needs. To believe that we have made progress, so this thinking goes, is to be ethnocentric, to fall victim to a myth that the powerful use to keep everybody else in their place.
Now I think these ideas are easy to refute, but you have to know something in order to dispute them. You have to have some basic information about events like the Civil War, some knowledge of the achievements of leaders like Joshua Chamberlain, some facts about what life used to be like so that you can evaluate whether we have advanced or not. Can anyone who has read what the practice of medicine used to be like have any doubt that technological progress is important? About a year after Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain was grievously wounded as he led his men in a charge at the Battle of Petersburg. Field surgeons patched him together but they lacked modern techniques and devices, and while Chamberlain lived a long life, he suffered for the rest of his years from his wound and sometimes endured terrible pain, "unspeakable agony," he called it once and he was not a complainer. Can anyone reading about this doubt that modern medicine is an important achievement?
Provocative ideas ought to be welcome on our campuses because they encourage debate. But provocative ideas are not enough. Students need basic knowledge about the American past in order for there to be a real discussion. They need to know about great events and brave men and women and what has been achieved in America if they are to respond thoughtfully to claims that none of these things matter.
Insuring the historical literacy of the next generation is not solely the responsibility of schools and colleges, of course. Parents and grandparents and other adults should talk to children and young people about the American past. We should be reading ourselves, constantly refreshing our memories so we can tell the next generation about the founders of this country, so that we can talk to them about George Washington's bravery, and John Adams' determination, and Thomas Jefferson's eloquence. We need to know so that we can tell them about the courageous men and women who inspired us to live up to the ideals that the Founders advanced, people like Frederick Douglass, who worked not only against slavery, but for the rights of African-Americans, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who spent fifty years fighting for women's rights.
It is also good to remind ourselves so that we can teach our children of the valor shown by those who have defended liberty. In America: a Patriotic Primer, the children's book I recently published, one of my favorite pages is the one for V, which stands for valor. Listed in the border around the page are some of those who have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The list begins with Joshua Chamberlain and includes Abraham Cohn, Daniel Inouye, Joseph
Timothy O'Callahan, Joe Nishimoto, Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., Riley Pitts, Roy Benavidez, Jack Jacobs, Gary Gordon, Randall Shughart. Listen to those names and think how they illustrate the way in which our liberty has depended on Americans whose forebears came from every part of the world. What an important thing for us to recognize--and to teach our children.
A quarter century after the battle of Gettysburg, Joshua Chamberlain visited the battlefield, and speaking not of himself but of the countless acts of bravery that occurred there in early July, 1863, he said, "In great deeds, something abides." I take his words to mean that stories of heroism and high achievement linger and can lift our hearts long after they have happened. They offer inspiration for the journey we are all on, telling us that although we are transitory creatures, we are capable of transcendent acts, deeds that will echo down through history and make life better for those who come after us.
This affirming vision is one the children of this nation deserve to have set before them, from their youngest years.
Thank you very much for having me here today.