I ran the story below on July 4, 2013 on the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Another decade has passed and I find it all the more timely that we reflect upon the US Civil War and the lessons we can draw from it in this era of intense political division.
Battle of Gettysburg: 160 Years Later
Imagine yourself on an open field in rural Pennsylvania on July 4, 1863. For the last three days, a fierce battle had raged, a battle that had inflicted 46,236 casualties and claimed 7,863 lives. The weather is sticky and warm and the smell of blood and death is heavy.
Quite a different day than Independence Day 87 years earlier, when church bells celebrated the Continental Congress’ unanimous vote to sever ties with the Crown, proclaiming in the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness….
It was these words above that propelled both sides, the North and the South, to sacrifice their lives, fortunes, and honor to fight in what remains the deadliest war in American history, claiming 618,222 lives between 1861 and 1864. Thankfully, the North emerged victorious, putting to rest the ultimate mockery of the notion that all men are created equal.
George Santayana once said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and the incidence of war over the last 150 years bears out his somber warning.
Gettysburg is now a tranquil field, dotted now with the graves of the dead and monuments to their sacrifice. My brother and I had a chance to visit in 2009 and I will share some of my photos below. I think it imperative that Americans, and all peace-loving people, make a pilgrimage to Gettysburg. The smell of death may be gone, but death lingers over that field, a memorial to those who “died to make men free” as the third stanza of the Battle Hymn of the Republic so quintessentially describes. The lesson to draw is not that war is never worth the cost, but that it costs so much.