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The echo of a low and constant rumble comes to us from the far horizon. Is it difficult to determine if it is a summer thunderstorm or a ghostly cannonade. Dimly heard on the wind is the mournful mutter of a far off battlefield. Spectral voices call back to us from a century and a half ago, hollow and distant.
On a sunny July day.
Two former colleagues, now opposing generals, meet when one is captured. The man in blue greets the other in grey,
“Good morning, Archer! How are you? I am glad to see you!”
To which the man in grey replies,
“Well, I am not glad to see you by a damn sight!”
His misgivings are well founded. The Confederate officer will languish for many months in a POW camp, costing him his health and eventually his life soon after being exchanged late in the war. A day later the Union officer will be relieved of command to his enduring shame. His relief is despite starting the first day of the battle as a division commander and finishing it commanding a full corps in a desperate situation. His timely actions likely saved the Union Army from defeat, but his commander is unimpressed and annoyed by the timing of his retreat. The general’s fear at the time is that his legacy would be that of an incompetent and dilatory leader and no credit will be given for his valuable service.
His fears are unfounded as he is destined to be remembered for neither. Instead, he will enter American myth as the supposed inventor of the national pastime of baseball.
A day and a night follow.
A soft spoken Abbeville Alabama lawyer standing on the lower slopes of a steep rocky hill witnesses his brother fall mortally wounded beside him. He hoarsely shouts the same word he has shouted five previous times in the last thirty minutes; “Charge!” Unbelievably, the boys from South Alabama follow him once more up that bullet-swept slope, past their fallen comrades from the previous fruitless attempts. Men from the small towns of Loachapoka and Auburn, urged forward by their own officers, follow on his extreme left.
A professor of rhetoric from a small rural northern college standing wearily on the hillside above the lawyer gives his own command in a fatigued shout, “Fix Bayonets!” His boys from Maine along with two of his brothers follow his command too. In the next fifteen minutes, he will earn his nation’s highest honor for valor.
A night and another day follow.
“Up men, and to your posts,…” says an immaculately dressed dandy who was the ‘goat’ of his West Point class. His perfumed ringlets drip with sweat in the summer heat as he raises his voice, “Remember today that you fight for old Virginia!”
“Steady, men,” says a mounted officer in blue as he rides slowly along a three foot wall. Shells burst and round shot ricochets off the top of the stonework, spraying the huddled ranks behind it with rock chips. Answering another officer who begs him to take cover he states calmly, “No. There are times when a Corps commander’s life does not count.”
Half a mile away, under white oak and hickory trees along a small intermittent stream bed, his lifelong friend steps out from under the shade and into the blazing July sunlight. He and 13,000 other men begin to cross a whirlwind of shot and shell that will result over half their numbers lying bleeding and dying on the wide fields between. He will also receive a mortal wound less than a hundred yards of the spot where the mounted officer encourages the Union men, in a place known forever afterwards as the ‘Bloody Angle’.
There are other places here too, given names by the soldiers who fought there on those three long days and remembered as such forevermore. They are small, quiet places otherwise unremarkable on all the days before or since that fateful meeting: The Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Ridge. Small shallow streams meander through this ground: the Plum Run, Pitzer’s Run, Rock Creek. Those streams are crossed or paralleled by roads with names from more peaceful times: The Fairfield Road, the Emmitsburg Road, the Chambersburg Pike, the Baltimore Pike. They all meet at a tiny hamlet amid the quiet fields of rural Pennsylvania with a name forever engraved in the annals of American History.
Photo courtesy of Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 / compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge, Washington, D.C. : Lib of Congress, 1977. No. 0207
One hundred and fifty years ago next month, the largest and costliest battle in the entire Western Hemisphere was fought. More Americans fell at Gettysburg than would fall on any other American battlefield in our entire history. The wounded and dying totaled over 51,000; a full third of all the men who were gathered there in early July, 1863. More books have been written and more memoirs published that mention this battle than any other engagement in our nation’s history.
On one side of the battle, the most famous military officer our nation has ever produced held command. On the other, the most infamous and flamboyant cavalry officer of his generation was 23 years old and sporting a general’s star. Representatives of some of the most famous American families were in uniform that day. A nephew of the celebrated commander of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 (that inspired Francis Scott Key to the Star Spangled Banner) was a Confederate General. The man who was acquitted for killing Francis Scott Key’s son (by virtue of the first known ‘temporary insanity’ plea in American justice) was a Union General. The bones of the leg he lost in the battle are still on display in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Until his death in 1904, he would regularly visit his leg on the anniversary of their separation, wearing one of the 63 Medals of Honor awarded during those three remarkable days.
However, even combined with the capture of Vicksburg, the battle did not signal the end of that war, or even the final outcome, as the war would last another twenty eight months. But it did ensure one outcome would never come to pass: that of a Confederate victory by force of arms. For the remainder of the war, the forces in grey and butternut would be on the strategic defensive, with only the slimmest hope for what would become known as “The Lost Cause.”
The battle is the subject of the most famous speech ever given by an American, memorized by many generations of schoolchildren, both here and abroad. It was spoken by a man who essentially educated himself after only a single year of formal education. He remains the only United States President to ever commemorate a battlefield while the war in which the battle was fought was still undecided.
When the president gave that speech five months after the last soldier who fought there was interred, there was little immediate applause. So little applause in fact, that he remarked privately that he had failed in his intent to re-inspire the Union cause. The ten sentences were too brief, following as they did the 13,000 word speech of the previous orator. But in this belief he was mistaken, for despite the audience’s poor reaction the day of the speech, printed in newspapers across the country those same words galvanized the nation and its people. In time they became the signature speech of that war in the minds and hearts of all the generations that followed.
He was wrong in another sense, too. The nation did note, and will long remember what he said there.
“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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.”
Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.
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