By Gene Pisasale
In the midst of the greatest maelstrom this country had ever witnessed, one event stood above the rest, warranting special recognition.
Two armies, totaling 160,000 men, met in combat in the small crossroads town of Gettysburg from July 1 to 3, 1863. The aftermath was staggering: 51,000 total casualties, the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War. Due to the magnitude of the occasion, local attorney David Wills petitioned Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to dedicate a special plot of ground adjacent to the Evergreen Cemetery as a final resting place for those who’d given their lives in the struggle. The ceremony occurred on November 19th, 1863 -- four and a half months after the battle, as soldiers were still being buried nearby.
The keynote speaker for the dedication in Gettysburg was Congressman Edward Everett of Massachusetts, a respected orator. Wills had also asked President Lincoln to attend and make “a few appropriate remarks.”
Lincoln started working on his speech while he was in Washington and finished it in the second floor bedroom of Wills’ house in downtown Gettysburg after arriving by train the night before. Although fatigued and suffering from the initial symptoms of smallpox, the President managed to complete his comments in time for the commemoration the next day. The words he spoke transformed the very nature of our democracy.
Everett walked to the podium first. His address lasted for more than two hours, and was quickly forgotten. Lincoln stood up and was initially hesitant, unsure whether his voice would even be heard in the huge crowd around him. His words reflected his deep sense of history, a reverence for the values embodied in our system of government.
Lincoln’s speech had three major themes. The first was birth. The nation was “conceived” incorporating our basic freedoms within its founding principles: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”
To Lincoln, the Constitution not only protected our liberties; it held us together as a society. Yet, the country was embroiled in a horrendous struggle regarding slavery. As Lincoln spoke, he knew the foundations of our way of life were at risk due to the rebellion which tore the country apart. He understood that our rights as citizens are far from guaranteed. We have to fight to defend them. This led to the second theme of Lincoln’s speech, death: “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…”
Lincoln sensed the smell of death near him as he walked around Gettysburg, and his first sight was coffins being unloaded at the train station. The unbelievable carnage there, and at dozens of other battles, had stunned the country. Yet through fighting -- and dying -- for sacred principles, brave Union soldiers deserved a ceremony honoring what they’d sacrificed for us all. This led to his final theme, rebirth: “…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.”
The words “under God” were added by Lincoln extemporaneously at the last minute, as he gave his speech. They do not appear in his original document.
One of the men who died at Gettysburg was Charles F. Taylor of Kennett Square. Taylor was the brother of author/diplomat Bayard Taylor, who wrote “The Story of Kennett.” Charles served valiantly and had been made the youngest Colonel in the Army of the Potomac. He was killed on the second day of the battle, July 2, as he and his troops were defending a rocky hill called Little Round Top.
Two markers on the battlefield honor him and his fellow patriots. One is a beautiful sculpture depicting a soldier holding his rifle, representing men of “The Bucktails” who volunteered to fight from Chester and neighboring counties in Pennsylvania. The sculpture stands on the flanks of the Devil’s Den. The second is a granite monument paying tribute to the Colonel just up the hillside, across from Little Round Top.
The mountain was immortalized in the film “Gettysburg,” showing Col. Joshua Chamberlain, who led a brilliant “swinging door” maneuver that finally repulsed numerous attacks from the Confederates, saving the Union Army -- and the nation.
Standing in front of Taylor’s marker, with the sunlight glistening on his name carved into the stone, you can feel the wind rushing down the hill where he and his men gave their lives in the most critical battle of the Civil War.
The Gettysburg Address has been recognized as one of the greatest speeches in American history. In two minutes, Lincoln explained the meaning of this great experiment in self-governance we call America.
The ceremony honoring the 150th anniversary of this event was held on Nov. 19, 2013 at the Soldier’s Cemetery in Gettysburg. Many celebrities were in attendance, giving their thoughts on what Lincoln’s words have meant to our country. Gov. Tom Corbett and Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey paid their respects on the solemn occasion. The keynote speaker was author/historian James McPherson, who has visited the battlefield many times.
In his book, “Hallowed Ground,” McPherson mentions the day in 1987 that he took some students out to Gettysburg to get a better sense of what happened there. As they all gathered on Little Round Top, one girl started crying. Her sobbing kept the entire group silently enraptured as they gazed at the marker honoring the 20th Maine regiment, whose men died protecting the ground they now stood upon. In his book, McPherson says it was the most memorable moment he’d ever spent on any battlefield in America.
McPherson noted in his address that our freedoms were very much in doubt the day Lincoln gave his immortal speech, and they remain fragile today. He wondered aloud whether these precious freedoms would exist 150 years from now, saying, “No one knows for sure.”
As part of the commemoration, James Getty (attired as Lincoln) eloquently recited the Gettysburg Address, and then something equally memorable happened. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia read the oath of citizenship to 16 people from around the world who were there to become new citizens of the United States, the number honoring our 16th President.
Walking in Gettysburg, you are surrounded by the signs of this great conflict. The Farnsworth House Inn on Baltimore Street was there at the time of the battle, and more than 100 bullet holes are still visible along its red brick walls. The Soldiers National Monument within the cemetery, and hundreds of other markers where men fought and died throughout the battlefield, remind us that the foundations of our democracy are tenuous. We honor them and all our veterans by resolving to protect and defend the sacred rights for which they gave their last full measure of devotion -- not only to us, but for generations to come.
Gene Pisasale is an author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. He’s written six books focusing on history. His most recent work is “The Civil War: Rebirth of A Nation,” which delves into the causes, the events, the personalities, the major battles and the aftermath of America’s greatest conflict. To learn more, visit www.GenePisasale.com or e-mail him at Gene@GenePisasale.com.