One hundred and fifty years ago on July 1, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg commenced. Many historians conclude that this battle was the defining battle, the turning point, or the decisive Federal victory of the Civil War. Other historians dispute, or qualify, these descriptions although all recognize that the three day slaughter was the bloodiest battle in American history. In total, the Union Army of the Potomac and Confederate Army of Northern Virginia incurred over 50,000 casualties in and around the village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The term bloodbath understates the horror. After the battle, the stench arising in the summer heat from dead soldiers and animals sickened local residents.
On the battle’s sesquicentennial, we should contemplate the issues that led to the slaughter in such huge numbers and the battle’s meaning for us. Like most wars, the overarching issues were political. The South fought for independence while the North fought to preserve the Union. Yet, much more was involved and the soldiers on both sides knew it.
President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 which freed the slaves in Rebel controlled territory. By July, few doubted that in addition to reunion, the North fought to end chattel slavery. While the South battled to establish its independence, it also fought to preserve the “peculiar institution.”
Federal soldiers marched into battle singing the Battle Cry of Freedom. A line in the second verse is explicit about a reason for fighting in addition to reunion, “And we’ll fill our vacant ranks with a million freemen more.” The battle did thin the Union ranks, but newly freed black men flocked to enlist in the United States Army and Navy. By the war’s end, over 200,000 blacks served in the United States Armed Forces, more manpower than the Confederates could muster by the war’s end.
In his famous Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln’s clarified what the battle accomplished. He recognized that the battle not only tested the nation’s survival, but that it advanced a new birth of freedom under a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
For certain, we can never forget what the soldiers did there, but we should also remember that they fought for the promise of America. Our democracy will never attain perfection, but as citizens we should strive to advance freedom, equality and liberty. The death of so many to preserve our Union at the Battle of Gettysburg dedicates us all to engage in our communities and nation, to speak out for justice, to struggle for truth, and to cherish the ideals that make us a great nation.
With these concepts in mind, the Battle of Gettysburg is as relevant today as it was one hundred and fifty years ago.
Gene Jones is the President of Florida Veterans for Common Sense Inc., and the author of Suwannee Divide, a historical novel about the Civil War in Florida.
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