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Before and after Gettysburg
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GETTYSBURG – We are met on a great battlefield of the Civil War.
It was here 150 years ago the war turned. And it was here, four months later, that a 270-word speech transformed the war from a struggle to save the Union to one to save the soul of the country.
Many acts of heroism occurred here, most of them lost to history. Many acts of folly and futility occurred here, one of them (Pickett's Charge) preserved in a thousand histories and in a nation's collective memory. Ten remarkable sentences of enduring wisdom were uttered here, memorized by generations of Americans who share the liberty Abraham Lincoln assured was won here.
Gettysburg is not so much a Pennsylvania town as an American icon. Like Valley Forge, it belongs to our common history more than to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
But here, even more than at Valley Forge, we feel the terrible toll of the terrible swift sword, the great losses suffered by warriors from both sides when the men abandoned the altars of the evening dews and damps and slipped quietly into battle, some of them moving silently to their violent deaths.
The beginning of July 1863 was a peculiar American moment -- a time when the destiny of a continent began to be clarified -- but it was not an inevitable moment. In his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, Lincoln would note that soldiers and sympathizers of both sides "read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." Union forces may have come to believe that they moved with God's gusts at their back, but before Gettysburg the resolution of the war was anything but certain.
The importance of Gettysburg was evident instantly. In his diary, New York lawyer George Templeton Strong recognized the battle removed Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore from danger of raids, or perhaps even occupation, by Confederate forces even as it ended the cult of invincibility that Union soldiers had built up around rival Robert E. Lee.
Grant and his Army of the Tennessee would prevail at Vicksburg after a siege of nearly seven weeks, the Confederate surrender coming a day after the end of the conflict at Gettysburg. Together Gettysburg and Vicksburg provided unmistakable evidence of the superiority of the Union effort.
The America that would emerge out of the Civil War would be riven by the tensions produced by an industrializing nation struggling to reach its economic potential, redeem its political promises, rebuild its ravaged countryside and heal its deep emotional wounds, all at the same time.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com).