This July 1-3 will mark the 154th anniversary of the biggest, bloodiest, and most decisive battle ever fought in North America. I hope in the coming days to spark your interest by relaying this most amazing story.
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In the summer of 1863 the United States, just shy of eighty-seven years young, was deep into its third year of a horrific Civil War that appeared to have no end in sight. Far from having crushed the agrarian Southern states’ rebellion, the much more populous and industrialized North instead found themselves on the defensive, facing a victorious, seemingly invincible, Rebel Army of Northern Virginia, 77,000 men strong and at the height of its power, that was invading Pennsylvania. Its legendary commander, General Robert E. Lee, was seeking a showdown fight that would earn for the fledgling Confederate States of America its independence from the rest of the United States.
Shadowing Lee’s invasion force, staying between them and the capital Washington, D.C., was an even larger USA Army of the Potomac, fielding 95,000 men anxious to eject the Rebel invaders from their soil. Unlike Lee, who had delivered four victories to the Southern cause in one year, the man at the head of President Abraham Lincoln’s primary army, Major General George G. Meade, had been in command for just four days. Though untested, Meade, a native of Pennsylvania, was not intimidated by Lee’s reputation as a “grey fox.” He saw his task as simple: hunt down Lee’s army, engage it in battle and destroy it.
But as it turned out, neither Lee nor Meade but rather a chance encounter would end up deciding when and where the great battle would be fought. On July 1, 1863, almost by accident, the two armies collided violently in and around a sleepy little town in southern Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.
The stakes were as high as on any battlefield in which any Americans have ever fought in any war. On the line was nothing less than the question of the Republic’s future itself. Were we to remain one federal Union: a united, powerful, trans-continental nation of free citizens from the Mexican to Canadian borders and sea-to-sea and beyond? Or would the territory of the USA be balkanized into two or more independent countries, including one whose economy and culture was built upon the labor of 3.5 million African-American slaves?
But what was the fighting all about in the first place? At the beginning of hostilities in April 1861, both sides insisted with mutual delusion that slavery was not the war’s casus belli. The division between them, they vehemently declared, was about “States’ Rights” for the South, preserving the Union for the North, and sprinkled with sectional economic grievances from tariffs to free navigation of the Mississippi…but not slavery.
That was utter nonsense...
This is like insisting that an argument is only about the sunrise and has nothing to do with the rotation of the earth. After all, if slavery was not the core source of contention between North and South, how come not one free state felt compelled to secede and join what three rebellious states even referred to in their articles of secession as the “the Slave-Holding Confederacy”? (Georgia mentions slavery 35 times in its 3,300 word declaration!) More revealing, why then just ten years prior to war did the South, whose passion for “States’ Rights” was a fetish, nonetheless demand a strict Federal Fugitive Slave Law that gave the central power in Washington D.C. a draconian override of any Northern states’ policies re: harboring run-away slaves? The fact is, when faced with a choice between preserving the institution of slavery or defending the sacrosanct (albeit Northern) “States’ Rights”, the South came down hard for the former while trampling on the latter.
This doesn’t mean that many Southern soldiers in the rank and file—few of whom owned any slaves at all—were insincere in their belief that they were fighting solely for “States’ Rights,” but this invites the question: the right to do what exactly? The CSA’s own vice-president, Alexander Stephens, provided the answer:
Our new Government’s foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. – March, 1861
There is no doubt that slavery was a wicked institution and the great stain upon this nation, but did Americans really need to slaughter each other wholesale to decide the issue? Could the abolitionists not just have let it die naturally as other nations had? 620,000 lives lost. How could such bloodshed be justified? I think the answer lies in the Southern mindset itself at the time. Yes, slavery had died a natural death elsewhere, but no region on earth was so completely dependent upon slave labor as was the Antebellum South. (Mississippi’s Articles of Secession called slavery “The greatest material interest of the world.”) It was not just indispensable to their entire economic system but it was also a deeply interwoven, complex social and cultural institution. In 1860, fully one-third of the Confederacy’s population were slaves—in some states slaves actually outnumbered free men. If the subsequent century of Jim Crow oppression, segregation and disenfranchisement of Blacks in the South is any indication, slavery as an institution was not going to just die away peacefully … certainly not any time soon and as such far too late for generations of millions who deserved better than to be condemned to endure such a monstrous injustice.
No modern nation which, as Lincoln declared, was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could allow such a government, whose most vital pillar was the very antithesis of freedom, to exist within its sphere of influence. It is certainly true that many in the North held Blacks in as much contempt as did any Dixie plantation overseer and I have no intention of holding up the Union as a land of racial harmony and virtue (Google “New York Draft Riots”). But that does not alter the higher idea that the South’s overt slave-state rebellion deserved to be crushed. And so it was. And the beginning of the end of the Confederacy began at Gettysburg.
Lincoln would also say: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” So long as we remember the sacrifices made by a generation long past to preserve the nation that has been so good to us, their efforts and suffering will not have been in vain. So long as we treat with solemnity the memories of the Confederates to whom, though rejecting their cause, we look with deep admiration for their awe-inspiring battlefield successes and esprit de corps, then the story of America endures. At Gettysburg and other battles, Americans be they “Johnny Reb” or “Billy Yank” committed acts of bravery and self-sacrifice so astounding that, when looking back on their deeds later in life, they could hardly believe themselves what they had done.
And so I'd like to present to you the story of the Gettysburg as it unfolded just over a century-and-a-half ago during the hot and humid summer of 1863. Perhaps you will be prompted to hop in your car and take the family to the nearby battlefield when you’re done reading this series of dispatches from the front if you will. If so you will be doing your part to preserve our national heritage. You will be resisting what the author Lee Harris calls a “collective forgetfulness that over time settles over peaceful societies.” We must never forget.
Besides, it’s one heck of a story, more compelling and dramatic than the wildest fiction.