One hundred and fifty years ago today, in the heat of the Pennsylvania countryside, America’s existence hung in the balance.
It was do or die, and an ungodly number died.
And all these years later, we don’t really quite remember. Abraham Lincoln said we could never forget what the men who fought there did, but his vision didn’t extend to our day, because we have forgotten.
One hundred and fifty years ago today, the bodies piled high in Gettysburg.
Robert E. Lee sought to stick his sword in the soft underbelly of the north. He massed the Army of Northern Virginia and drove into Union territory, bringing the fight to the federals. He wanted to burn cities and discourage citizens and break the will and the spine of the Union Army.
Abraham Lincoln sent the Army of the Potomac to find and engage Lee’s assault. A hundred and fifty years ago yesterday, as both armies hurried toward a meeting in the Pennsylvania woods, Union cavalrymen took up positions on three ridges north of town. The goal was to delay the Rebel attack until the rest of the Union forces could arrive.
It was 27,000 from the South and 22,000 from the North and the first day was a bloody mess. The Union soldiers held as long as they could, and then fell back, fighting house to house through the village, eventually taking up positions south of town as the battle ramped up with the steady arrival of more and more troops.
By the second day -- 150 years ago today – all hell had broken loose, and it continued that way for some 48 hours, until the armies broke apart on the third day and America was left with the stunning death toll, and the horrific fact that never in the recorded history of the Western Hemisphere had a single battle taken so many lives.
It was everything you could imagine, and worse.
And on this date it swung in the balance.
If the South had won, the war could well have been lost and the Constitution would have been gone. America would have soon followed it into oblivion.
But the South didn’t win. The Rebels eventually buckled. An unwise Union general foolishly let Lee’s broken army slink away, instead of crushing it while he could.
In the wake of the battle, bodies littered the ground as far as the eye could see. It was an epic bloodletting and a soul-shaking grotesquery. In the immediate aftermath, there was uncertainty and shock. It wasn’t until the following November, when Lincoln said a few short words at the dedication of the national cemetery, that the purpose and the resolve were stated and seen.
The men who fought and fell, Lincoln said, must be the pattern and inspiration for a rededication of the American people to the cause of liberty and self-government.
But he wasn’t just speaking to the people of his day. He was speaking to the people of every day – of our day – telling them the debt they owed to the men of Gettysburg.
The first debt is to remember.
In that we have failed. Few Americans know or could explain anything about the events, context or significance of the Battle of Gettysburg. In the 50 years since the centennial of the Civil War – an anniversary that riveted the country on the years of conflict – we have lost our taste for American history. This sesquicentennial is passing unnoticed and ignored. We are a country midway through the move from remembering our history to disavowing it.
And so this anniversary largely passes unnoticed.
The second debt is the larger, to do as Lincoln directed, to dedicate ourselves to the proposition that all men are created equal, and to the continued ideal that government of the people, by the people and for the people should not perish.
Those are things to remember, to discuss with our families, and to make a point of standing for.
And today is a chance to remember.
And a prompt to learn. The names and events, the generals and their men, the states and the places, the lay of the land south of town.
Someday, if you haven’t gone, you should go to Gettysburg, to walk among the graves and to look across the fields. To try to grasp the enormity and the horror.
To remember what they faced.
We owe it to them.
We owe them that and so much more.
The men of Gettysburg, who were falling 150 years ago today.