Even if you’re familiar with the landscape and the particulars of the battle, it’s tough to wrap your mind around the carnage of Gettysburg. In just three days of fighting, sparked when Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac met to repel the invasion of the North by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, nearly 8,000 people were killed and 27,000 wounded. To get a sense of what that means in terms of today’s population, multiply those numbers by 10—it would be as if today’s Army lost a third of its manpower in a single engagement.
It was the bloodiest fight of the war and a turning point. The horrible losses at Gettysburg, and before that at Chancellorsville, would destroy the offensive capability of Lee and the Confederate Army. The Confederate States Army would hold out for almost two more years, losing tens of thousands of soldiers and the productive capacity of the South, but this was the beginning of the end.
If it were just that, Americans would remember Gettysburg. But the battle was also the occasion for Abraham Lincoln’s address, one of the most famous speeches in presidential history. And it’s for that, as much as for the fighting, that Gettysburg is remembered. To wit, in 1865, during a eulogy for the slain president, famed Sen. Charles Sumner called the speech a “monumental act” and declared that the “the battle was less important than the speech.”
I’d say that’s half true. While the Gettysburg Address was—and is—iconic, the battle is an important part of our collective memory. And indeed, over the last 150 years, our feelings on the battle have been tied tightly to our beliefs about the country and our progress. When Lincoln spoke, the nation was still fighting to determine its future, whether it would stand as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Southern secession wasn’t just a threat to the particular political interests of the Union, it—and its basis in slavery—was a challenge to the survival of nation “conceived in liberty.” In the autumn of 1863, when Lincoln gave his speech, that was still an open question.
By the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, in 1913, the feeling from most Americans was that we had answered Lincoln’s question in the affirmative. And at an anniversary celebration of the battle—where Union and Confederate veterans gathered, shook hands, and commemorated their service together—President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States was firmly one nation:
“We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes. How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, as state after state has been added to this, our great family of free men!”
In the early 20th century, such triumphalism was typical of the United States, an industrial, powerful, and growing player in world affairs. And it was especially typical of Wilson, who saw himself as someone who could lead the country into its destined role as a light among nations. “Every day,” he said to the assembled veterans, “something must be done to push the campaign forward, and it must be done by plan and with an eye to some great destiny.”
But what’s striking about Wilson’s comments is what they omit. The United States of 1913 was prosperous and, compared with many other countries, free. But it also abandoned millions of its citizens to racial violence, held them as pariahs, denied them the protection of law, and barred them from economic opportunity. Wilson’s zeal for modern America was matched by his indifference to former slaves and their descendants. The veterans of Gettysburg also fought to secure a “new birth of freedom,” which Wilson, a staunch white supremacist, actively opposed.
Southern secession wasn’t just a threat to the particular political interests of the Union, it—and its basis in slavery—was a challenge to the survival of nation “conceived in liberty.”
On the 100th anniversary of Gettysburg, in 1963, the mood was significantly different. The United States was wealthier, more powerful, and at the same time more conscious of the ways it had failed its black citizens. In his speech commemorating the battle, Vice President Lyndon Johnson acknowledged all of this and connected the civil-rights movement to Lincoln’s interpretation of the events of early July 1863:
“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin. The Negro today asks justice.
“We do not answer him—we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil—when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’
“It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock. The solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans—white and Negro together—must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now.
“Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg 100 years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.”
In the 50 years since, the United States has made tremendous progress in honoring the sacrifice at Gettysburg and moving toward a more just society. But even with an African-American president, racial equality is still a ways away, as any set of statistics on income, wealth, and education for whites, blacks, and other groups shows. If President Obama or Vice President Biden decides to commemorate the 150th anniversary with a speech, he can take Wilson’s route—and focus on the progress we’ve made—or borrow from LBJ and emphasize how far we have left.