No event has impacted the American psyche as much as the Civil War and this battle in particular. If we were to look for an event that equals its impact in the 20th century, only the Great Depression would come to mind for touching almost every American and changing their lives.
America was a very different place in the 19th Century, the county had a population of about 31 million and about 3/4 of a million died in the Civil War. There really has never been an accurate accounting of the dead.
There were major cities – New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Charleston, and Savannah. But they were limited agents of change in American life.
Most American life took place in a small agrarian society that centered around home and farm, community and church. Few Americans ever ventured more than 10-20 miles from where they were born. That was the key to life – home, church and community, state, and then a vague concept of nationhood.
The idea of a nation-state was only really a recent development. If one had looked at how Americans viewed their government, they for the most part would have said that “Maine believed in Union, or the Virginia was undecided about the Cause.”
The united states (small letters) were states united for mutual support in a governmental system. If one wrote about the country in the 19th century, before the War, it would have been in the plural such as “the United States are entering into a treaty with Canada.”
This was the America of the war.
Why did men such go to war?
Some went because family members or friends went.
Some men went because it was an adventure. They called it “Going to see the Elephant.” It was as if War were some exotic creature, some grand event that they had to be part of.
Some went because they believed in a cause. That cause could be abolition, or to Save the Union, or their own State’s rights. They went on a “crusade” for one reason or another.
Some went out of a sense of duty.
And some never returned.
The Norvell brothers never said why they went; all six Norvell brothers were lucky — they did return.
Gettysburg was the turning point and the United States would never be the same.