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Gettysburg, Then and Now

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Seven score and ten years ago today the Battle of Gettysburg was over.   The carnage was horrific and the course of the Civil War was set.  It would take nearly two more years to wind it down, but a different nation emerged from the blood that soaked the land.  We celebrate 150 years of this battle as a people changed and humbled, yet in many ways still fighting what “liberty” and “equal” mean.

Lincoln

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. 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. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

It is more than “fitting and proper” to remember the great sacrifices that made us a nation, but the art of understatement makes the solemnity more profound.  Lincoln knew that in times of terrible trouble only a restatement of the basic principles could bring us back to where one people, free and equal, could ever hope to find peace with each other.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

FirstMNBattleFlag

The Battle Flag of the 1st Minnesota Regiment, located today just inside the front door of the State Capitol

As the 262 remaining men of the 1st Minnesota Regiment closed the gap at the center of the Union lines on July 2nd, 1863, they knew they were up against 1,500 or more men.  They also knew what was at stake, and said very little as they charged into battle.  They needed to give the Union 5 minutes, but they gave them even more time as they stood their ground.  Only 47 came out of the fight, but the Union line held.  “There is no other unit in the history of warfare that ever made such a charge and then stood its ground sustaining such losses,” noted Lt. Colonel Joseph B. Mitchell.  150 years on, there is still a Union to remember their sacrifice.

And it was only one sacrifice that day, one that we in Minnesota are still very proud of.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that 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 nation did not perish, and it did have a new birth of freedom.  It went on to greater fights and even greater success in peace and prosperity.  Yet we find many of the same divisions that propelled us into the fight still unresolved.  The horror of slavery was ended, but what does it mean to be free and equal?  How can one ever be enhanced at the expense of the other?  Are any people truly free when some of their fellow citizens live poverty and others in limitless riches?  Can we even consider ourselves “a people” without resolving these questions?

gettysburg-ntional-cemetery

Gettysburg National Cemetery

The answer lies strewn across the countryside near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – and across the battlefields that mark the progress of that terrible war.  We cannot consecrate the actions of men who are forever part of the earth that they fought to win inches at a time any more than to remember what they gave to us.   This is what made us one people, after all.  Their example is both perfectly noble and a horrible demonstration of what must never happen again.

We are one people, the United States of America.  Our nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that everyone is created equal.   Through the years we have tested the limits of that trinity – unity, liberty, and equality.  They have advanced together through shared sacrifices and riches, but each has been diminished when they were shamefully pitted against each other.

Remember Gettysburg.  Its fields hold the very soul of this nation.

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11 thoughts on “Gettysburg, Then and Now

  1. Perfect. The divisions that we have are as old as the nation, but they have been far worse than they are today. You are right, this holiday is as good a time as any to go back to what got us here in the first place.

  2. “Through the years we have tested the limits of that trinity – unity, liberty, and equality. They have advanced together through shared sacrifices and riches, but each has been diminished when they were shamefully pitted against each other.”
    Gold! You have the oratorical skill of Lincoln!

  3. Just look at a map of the last election, you can see that the political divide is left over from the Civil war. It does seem like ancient history but yet it’s still with us? We have to get over this somehow. Great essay, but I don’t know what the answer is.

    • Yes, we are still fighting the Civil War in some ways. Even if the issues have changed a bit, the underlying principles are very similar.

  4. I’ve been to the Gettysburg battlefield a few times. A whole lot of people killed each other, as a result of other people failing to settle their differences. A lot of courage and sacrifice displayed. The thinness of human civilization illustrated. Is it something to glorify? I have my doubts….

    • Glorify isn’t exactly the right word. The bravery is unimaginable in today’s world, and I think it’s worth remembering that. But yes, something like this must never happen again – and the cautionary story is at least as important.

  5. It was a long time ago in a country very different from today. No matter what some people say secession is a dead issue. It won’t happen again.

    • I don’t think anyone has seriously tried, nor will they. But a few people might start doing something stupid, yes. And if the right should win more power I’m fairly sure “my side” wouldn’t be any different about it, no.

  6. Pingback: Appalling Behavior | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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