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Guelzo: Gettysburg's message to tyrants (column)

6:29 PM, Jul. 3, 2013  |  Comments
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There are a few moments in history when the normal, unhurried pace of events undergoes a sudden, violent compression, when single decisions become the starts of avalanches and people find the compass points of their lives spinning wildly askew. We have experienced a few of these moments in living memory -Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination - but the largest one in U.S. history was the Battle of Gettysburg, whose 150th anniversary was this week.

Gettysburg was the midpoint of our four-year Civil War. But it also became the war's hinge-point, and it's not difficult to see why.

First, the numbers: The Army and the insurgent Confederate force slammed 165,000 men into one another around a Pennsylvania crossroads town named for entrepreneur James Gettys. More than 50,000 of these men would become casualties - wounded, captured, dead, or missing. Between 7,000 and 9,000 were killed outright. That's six times the number of U.S. soldiers killed on D-Day and several times the number of overall U.S. D-Day casualties. It's also almost four times the number killed at Pearl Harbor.

What was more, Gettysburg was an unusually desperate battle. Until that moment, great battles were usually single-day affairs. But Gettysburg was prolonged over three days of slaughter, from July 1 to July 3, 1863. Northern and Southern soldiers threw themselves into struggles for hillsides and ridges (Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard) whose bland names belied the blood-letting that took place there. And it culminated on July 3rd with the Confederate army's last great roll of the dice: Pickett's Charge, the straight-on attack by three Confederate divisions.

The great charge failed, but by the narrowest of margins. The next day, the blood-drained Confederate army began a dreary retreat back to Southern soil. But almost before the battle had finished, the soldiers were full of the sense that they had witnessed something momentous. Frank Haskell, a Union staff officer who had helped stop Pickett's Charge, wrote just after the battle that Gettysburg was a struggle "greater than that of Waterloo." And on the other side, disheartened Confederates such as Alabama colonel William Oates, who had led the Confederate attempt to seize Little Round Top on the battle's second day, "began to despair when" the Southern army "turned back from Gettysburg."

Abraham Lincoln had something of the same sense about Gettysburg. For three years, the fortunes of his presidency had risen and fallen with the successes and failures of the Union army. But this victory was different. Coming as it did on the doorstep of the Fourth of July, Lincoln saw an almost providential coincidence between Gettysburg and Declaration of Independence. It had been the task of July 4, 1776, to declare "as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal." July 4, 1863, saw "the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal" put decisively on the run. "Peace," he wrote, "does not appear so distant as it did."

But Lincoln reserved his final commentary on Gettysburg for the "remarks" he was invited to deliver at the dedication of the national cemetery created at Gettysburg for the Union dead of the battle. In just 272 words, Lincoln (like the battle itself) compressed all the issues of the nation's history down to this one remarkable fact: that the United States was a republic built on a "proposition" about the natural equality of every human being with every other, regardless of class, race, gender, religion or culture. He had come not so much to perform a dedication - the soldiers buried there had done that already - as to urge his hearers and all Americans to dedicate themselves anew to that proposition. In so doing, they would guarantee the survival of what was most at stake in the Civil War, "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Gettysburg did not win the Civil War all by itself. But in Lincoln's mind, it proved that the American proposition was so precious that Americans would willingly sacrifice their lives rather than see it destroyed by civil war. In 1863, that was a wake-up call to every king, emperor and dictator to realize that the ordinary democratic citizen could rise up to be as terrible as any professional soldier. One hundred and fifty years later, it still is.

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