Seven Score and Ten Years Ago: The Battle of Gettysburg

29 Jun 2013

This week marks a very important anniversary. Of course, we celebrate the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, but that is not the commemoration of which I speak. Monday through Wednesday, July 1­­­–3, marks the sesquicentennial of one of the seminal conflicts of the Civil War: the Battle of Gettysburg.

 

Gettysburg Camp on the 50th Anniversary of the battle, 1913. From the Library of Congress American Memory Project.

Gettysburg Camp on the 50th Anniversary of the battle, 1913. From the Library of Congress American Memory Project.

 

After General Lee’s overwhelming success at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May, 1863, he determined to conduct a second invasion of the north. He brought his army up through the Shenandoah Valley and into Pennsylvania. This was the start of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Lee’s army of 72,000 men Headed up through Virginia, into Maryland, and crossed the border into Pennsylvania in June. Joseph Hooker led the Army of the Potomac to face Lee’s forces with 94,000 men of his own. Hooker had seen conflict of his own because of his actions defending Harper’s Ferry, and ended up tendering his resignation. On the morning of June 8 George Meade was named his successor.

The first conflicts started on the morning of July 1. The course of those three days saw some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The very first altercation alone saw 22,000 Union forces engaged with 27,000 Confederate soldiers. The casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg were quite high.

There is much disagreement concerning the total losses on the Confederate side, but all agree that they were higher than the Union forces. By the end of the battle, around 50,000 men were killed, wounded or missing in action. Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were among them. Amazingly, only a single civilian was killed.

In the hot summer sun, it was critical to get the bodies buried as quickly as possible. In August, land was acquired by the Pennsylvania governor for a soldier’s cemetery.  The bodies of more than 3,500 Union soldiers were moved to the cemetery. Confederate dead were not allowed, and they were eventually transferred to cemeteries in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

In November of that year, Abraham Lincoln arrived to attend the dedication of the cemetery. The two-minute speech he gave there has become one of the most iconic in American history. The first sentence can be recited by most American schooldchildren:

 

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 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.

 

Take a few moments this week to remember those brave men who gave their lives to preserve freedom. And what the Gettysburg Address really means.