Sunday, June 08, 2008

Gettysburg. A Civil War battle site where Confederate troops met Union troops over three days in July 1863, and Robert E. Lee's drive north was stopped. We spent 5 hours touring the different aspects of this three-day battle in these hot, humid, rolling hills, fully a month before the actual battle occurred. At first the plans on both sides of attack and retreat were balanced, but Union troops withdrew to high ground, and with the Confederate troops' last attack over Pickett Field: some 12,000 men advanced in a line nearly a mile wide, with no cover, into canon and rifle fire. Lee's frontal strategy failed. Some 5,000 men were lost in one hour, 51,000 died over the three days.

The Gettysburg National Park tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from both sides, with monuments dotting the landscape. A Visitor's Center took us three hours to view the many artifacts, letters, and commentary. The fields are peaceful, and a solemn air pervades as we drove through the 24-mile auto-tour, coming to know the physical reality of McPherson Ridge, Pitzer Woods, Spangler's Spring, and the High Water Mark, all places where individual acts of great courage took place. Major General Meade devised a fish-hook strategy that put his troops on high ground and that allowed him to move men as needed quickly inside the fish-hook. The attacking Confederate forces were on the outside of the fish-hook, on low ground, with a wider perimeter to move troops.

Here in November, 1863, Lincoln spoke his 227-word iconic Gettysburg Address to heal the nation, following a two-hour oration by a prominent politician. His words, taking just a few minutes, were mocked by some but have lasted and still reverberate.

The many monuments large and small, several by 20th Century sculptor Gutzon Borglum, of Mount Rushmore fame, capture the sense of dedication, sacrifice and loss, as Borglum's memorial to North Carolina does.

What I will remember most from this now peaceful national park, with fields and forest edged with wooden fences, is a time of great effort and sacrifice, to affirm, as Lincoln said, "the proposition that all men are created equal." Like today, hidden economic interests in the north and south propelled us to war, but both sides were driven by ideals and a sense that government should be "by the people, for the people." What this means today is that no matter how large our country, we should all have a say in the decisions that are made, politically, economically, socially, and strategically.

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