As an historian, I can’t believe we are not talking about what we are not talking about. Tomorrow there will be at least widespread lip service to the significance of what happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, but I’ve heard virtually nothing about what happened 150 miles west of Philadelphia, exactly 150 years ago today.
On July 3, 1863, one of the most consequential battles in American history concluded with Pickett’s Charge, the final act in the three-day drama of the Battle of Gettysburg. With Meade’s defeat of Lee in central Pennsylvania, the Confederacy lost its last real chance at recognition by European powers, a negotiated peace and the perpetuation of the American South with its ‘peculiar institution’ (slavery) at least temporarily intact.
Gettysburg was not just important for the military result — the defeat of Lee without the destruction of his Army of Northern Virginia. Arguably as important was the meaning of the speech Abraham Lincoln gave at Gettysburg less than five months later, at the dedication of the national cemetery for the soldiers who fell there.
At the time, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was widely and often contemptuously dismissed. Over time, we came to understand it more fully. Lincoln did not just honor the men who fell at Gettysburg. He expressed eloquently the unique, world-changing importance of the American experiment in representative government. He also changed the way we think about our country. Before the Gettysburg Address, we were a country, usually referred to as these United States (plural). Afterwards, we were the United States (singular), a nation and not just a Federal republic.
I’ve walked most of the western side of the Gettysburg battlefield. I’ve seen the long slope from the woods up to the top of Cemetery Ridge, both from above, behind the stone wall, and from below. Looking down from where Hancock’s corps waited for the attack, the line of the Emmitsburg Road looks like it is halfway down the slope. Walking up from below, you realize that by the time they reached the road, Pickett’s division had already marched almost a mile under cannon fire. Once across the road, they had about 200 years to go, all of it under canister and musket fire. I agree with Longstreet that, “No 15,000 men ever made could take that hill.”
I’ll raise a glass tonight to Hancock and Armistead, to Joshua Chamberlain, to John Buford, John Reynolds and Pennsylvania’s own George Meade; to all the more than 7,000 Americans who fell over three days of fighting. R.I.P.