(This essay was originally published in The Lincoln Forum Bulletin, Fall 2013.
On the 150th anniversary of the greatest, most significant battle since the Revolutionary War, America—but for historical circles and the celebrations in Gettysburg itself—appears disinterested. Abe Lincoln, our most admired president, would be disappointed and would shudder at the implications for our country.
In probably the greatest land battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1-3, 1863. During these three days some 70,000 Confederate soldiers, led by General Robert E. Lee, engaged 90,000 Union forces, led by Major General George Gordon Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac for only three days. Lee had invaded the North with the hope, militarily, of scoring a decisive victory which, politically, might strengthen the Northern peace movement and force President Abraham Lincoln to negotiate for peace.
The battle witnessed uncommon valor and good and poor tactical decisions on both sides, culminating in the ill-fated Confederate assault led by Major General George Pickett. Of the 14,000 Southern troops who attacked that July 3, only about one-half returned. While the Union won a resounding victory, the human toll on both sides was very costly: 23,000 Union casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) and 28,000 Confederate casualties, more than a third of the Confederate force.
Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would fight and win many other battles after Gettysburg; however, their former dominance in tactics and initiative was now matched by experienced Union forces, soon to be led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.
Many Americans who have heard of this battle may not know of its magnitude and significance. Many perhaps make facile assumptions about the inevitability of the North’s victory in the Civil War, similar to the common view of World War II—we all know the conclusion and casually assume the Allied victory was inevitable.
Not so. The Battle of Gettysburg could have gone either way, and with it the Civil War. If Lee had prevailed over Meade, there was no guarantee that the North’s superiority in manpower, finances, and industry along with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would win the war. If the Confederacy succeeded in stifling the North sufficiently so that public opinion shifted dramatically, we would have become two separate nations. Lincoln’s greatest nightmare would have come true: that self-government was a chimera.
Given the magnitude and significance of this battle, it is surprising how little commemoration, apart from the city of Gettysburg and historical circles, appears to be taking place. This past year Hollywood has given us Spielberg’s Lincoln; however, this is focused on Lincoln and the abolishment of slavery. Also, Copperhead, a movie about the peace movement in the North, opened in late June. The Postal Service has given us some marvelous stamps featuring the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Vicksburg. Minnesota is remembering its famous 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which sustained an 82% casualty rate at the battle. Here in Rhode Island we have a program at the state capitol on July 3 remembering the battle and the uncanny story of our famous “Gettysburg Gun.” A musical-theatrical “Tribute to the Battle of Gettysburg” is also planned for later in the month.
Beyond this, there seems to be an absence of major commemorations. Our country seems disinterested or preoccupied. Honest Abe would be very disappointed. During this past year the weekly newspaper Education Week, self-described as “American Education’s [K-12] Newspaper of Record,” has had no articles on the Battle or the Civil War, focusing on such things as the implementation of the Common Core standards, assessment of students, and teacher education and evaluation. Likewise, Independent School, the quarterly magazine for independent schools, has also ignored this pivotal battle and our Civil War, focusing on such themes as technology, experiential learning, safety and security in schools, and accomplishing school missions in an era of fiscal restraints. Even the PBS Catalog for June features neither the Battle nor the War. Its cover emphasizes “Constitution USA” and its rear cover features British dramas.
The implications of this neglect are serious. Societies and civilizations require glue to bind and sustain them, and one important source of this binding is a significant historical event, such as the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the so-called “high water mark of the Confederacy.” It was along with Vicksburg the pivotal battle of the Civil War which forged for us a new identity. It eliminated a way of life based on slavery. Before the war it was common to say “the United States are;” afterward, it became “the United States is.”
With the former prominence of Columbus Day now diminished, and Thanksgiving now overtaken by a commercialism which whisks us from Halloween almost directly to Christmas, the remembrance of such key events becomes even more important.
Secondly, our neglect of Gettysburg may signal a complacency about the longevity of our country. One of the great insights Lincoln gives us is his reminder of the contingent nature of our democratic system, a system which needs tending by its people for its survival. In his July 1861 message to Congress, he stated: “It [the War] presents to the whole family of man, the question whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy … can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.”
With the rise of China and The Rest, America is again faced with maintaining its interests in a changing and challenging world. Lincoln also gives us insight into our greatest challenge: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Fred Zilian is an educator at Portsmouth Abbey School and Salve Regina University, RI. For fifteen years he has been an Abraham Lincoln presenter/impersonator (www.honestaberi.com)