I grew up in Southern California, thousands of miles and a century removed from the Civil War, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I stopped at Gettysburg National Military Park last week. I knew I wanted to pay my respects at the National Cemetery there (my parents are buried in the National Cemetery in Riverside, CA) but other than that, I didn’t have an agenda. It turns out I didn’t have a clue what Gettysburg meant to my country, then or now.
I spent time today — Independence Day, and 154 years after the battle here ended — reading about the Civil War and the importance of Gettysburg.
The numbers involved in the three-day battle are horrific:
- Union: 93,921 soldiers, with casualties of 23,055 soldiers (3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, 5,365 captured or missing)
- Confederacy: 71,699 soldiers, with casualties of 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing).
Gettysburg became the most costly battle in US history. By the end of it, with both sides low on ammunition, they fought with rifles, bayonets, rocks and bare hands. As I stood in the hot July sun staring out at the fields where so many had fought and died, I was without words. I knew it was time for me to understand more about this place.
General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army was determined to break the Union by driving north through Pennsylvania. At Gettysburg, the Union army, under the command of Major General George G. Meade, held their position and after the bloody series of engagements here in July 1863, the Confederate forces retreated back to Virginia. They never got close to the Union states again. Lee’s invincibility in battle had been proven false, and while the war continued for two more years, Gettysburg was where the Union’s strategy and strength had re-energized their cause.
Today, Gettysburg’s battlefields are peaceful open fields, where people walk to retrace the steps of Little Round Top, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, and Pickett’s Charge. In the cemetery, both named and unknowns are recognized, with some visitors searching for family, with rangers assisting and providing historical background.
I have only scratched the surface of Gettysburg’s importance, I know. For today, I will end with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Reading it at the place where he delivered it was overwhelming, both because of the past and where our country finds itself today, divided in different ways, facing an uncertain future.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.