The Meaning of Gettysburg

Commentary magazine | Published on July 1, 2013

By Peter Wehner

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Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, widely judged to be the turning point of the American Civil War, its pivotal moment, and the bloodiest battle ever in North America. Fought by more than 158,000 men on both sides over three days, 51,000 were killed, wounded or went missing.

Today the outcome of the Civil War seems to many people to have been inevitable, but that was hardly the case. The first two years of the war–1861 and 1862–were a stalemate. Hopes of an early victory by the North were dashed. Both sides absorbed huge losses, but the South was making more headway than hardly anyone in the North imagined at the outset of the war. Abraham Lincoln was going through generals one after the other. And in May 1863 General Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had triumphed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His goal was to move north to Pennsylvania, where he hoped to draw the Union troops into a battle he expected to win.

Before the battle Lee laid his hand on a map, over Gettysburg, and said, “Hereabout we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.”

Instead, it was a crushing defeat, quickly followed by Grant’s victory at Vicksburg on July 4, allowing the Union to control the Mississippi River and essentially splitting the Confederate Army in two. So what we’re commemorating this week was arguably the crucial week in American history–the week in which the Civil War winds shifted from direction to another. It paved the way for the North’s eventual victory in April 1865.

“The results of this victory are priceless,” George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary. “The charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures…. Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least. … Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.”

The human carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg is almost impossible for us to comprehend. In the entire Civil War, the number of deaths has been revised upward from 618,000 to 750,000 in a nation of roughly 30 million, with more than one in five men aged 20 to 24 dying as a result of the war. And as Joel K. Bourne, Jr. has written, “For every man killed or who died from wounds in the Civil War, two more died of diseases like typhoid, diarrhea, and dysentery in crowded tent camps plagued by poor food and awful sanitation.”

But these horrific losses were hardly in vain. The Civil War, after all, achieved two monumentally important things: It ended slavery and it preserved the Union, which meant it preserved and extended liberty in America and the world. George Will refers to the Battle of Gettysburg as “the hinge of American, and hence world, history.” That seems to me to be a fair judgment–and today is a good day not only to remember the annihilation that began 150 years ago but also to give thanks for the courage and purpose that was on display on the grassy hills, the consecrated ground, of Gettysburg. If the North had lost instead of won at Gettysburg, America, as we know it, would have ended. And everything would be different. Instead this nation experienced a new birth of freedom–and a government of the people, by the people and for the people did not perish from the earth.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.