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Gettysburg and Armistice Day

Gettysburg and Armistice Day

by William H. Benson

November 15, 2018

     At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, the Southern General Robert E. Lee dared to invade the north, in a false hope that President Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army would sue for peace, and recognize the Confederacy, but Union troops held strong at Gettysburg. After the battle, Lee retreated back to the South, and for another two years, he fought only defensive battles.

     The battle at Gettysburg was horrific. Some 5,000 dead horses or mules littered the battlefield, and an estimated 8,900 men fell during the three days’ fight. The Harvard historian, Jill Lepore, said, “They lay in trenches, they lay on hilltops; they lay between trees, they lay atop rocks.”

     Cleanup crews set ablaze piles of horses and mules, and then covered the fallen young men with stones or dirt. One civilian was killed, a girl named Jennie Wade, struck down by a stray bullet.       

     In the autumn of 1863, officials decided to disinter the 3,512 fallen Union soldiers, and rebury them in what became the Gettysburg National Military Park.

     Then, over the next twenty years, officials and families from the South made the journey north to Gettysburg to dig up 3,320 fallen Confederate soldiers and rebury them in cemeteries across the South. Yet, an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 or more Confederate bodies still lay at Gettysburg, never disinterred.

     President Lincoln agreed to give the “Dedicatory Remarks” at the dedication ceremony at the Gettysburg Park, on November 19, 1863, 155 years ago this month. In about two minutes, Lincoln said 272 words. Edward Everett, a renowned orator, gave the Gettysburg Address. He spoke for two hours.

     Lincoln did not mention any individual man, soldier or officer. He did not mention the town of Gettysburg, or the two sides that were fighting, or even the word “slavery.”

     Instead, Lincoln mentions the Founding Fathers of 1776, that they built “a new nation” upon “Liberty. He lifts the words from the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.”

     Lincoln talks of “a great civil war,” “a great battle-field,” “a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live,” and he says that “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it.”

     The author Garry Wills said, in his book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, that Lincoln’s speech “hovers above the carnage,” that he wanted to “clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt,” and that the battle is “an experiment testing whether a government can maintain the proposition of equality.”

     Why did the young men at Gettysburg fight with such unswerving ferocity? During and after the war, some argued that Southerners fought for states’ rights, and that Northerners fought to preserve the Union, or for a thousand other reasons. Jill Lepore said, “Soldiers, North and South, knew better.” They fought for slavery, or against it.

     A Confederate soldier said, “Any man who pretends to believe that this is not a war for the emancipation of the blacks is either a fool or a liar.” In 1862, a Wisconsin soldier said, “The fact that slavery is the sole undeniable cause of this infamous rebellion, that it is a war of, by, and for Slavery, is as plain as the noon-day sun.”

     The Northern soldiers fought to uproot and eradicate the business of buying and selling men, women, and children. The Southern soldiers fought for the right to own property, and that included their laborers, their unpaid, held-in-bondage, chained slaves, a most wretched and horrific business.

     Sunday, November 11, 2018, Veterans Day, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, the day when the Great War in Europe ended. As many as nineteen million soldiers lost their lives during that ugly war, and as many as eight million civilians, due to famine, disease, the Spanish flu, or genocide.

     The Great War was fought on a scale far beyond any witnessed before in human history. This was government folly at its worst. There was no moral reason, like slavery, to justify the massive slaughter. There was no speech like the Gettysburg Address, that “hovered above the carnage.” There was no talk of Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom.” There was only four years of slaughter, and then an Armistice.

      Human beings had invented machines that could kill other human beings with deadly efficiency on a battlefield, or from the air, but governments had not learned how to avoid the folly of war and steer the ship of state away from the precipice.

     At Gettysburg, men fought, and men died, and, as Lincoln said, they “gave the last full measure of devotion,” and that the world “can never forget what they did here.”