One hundred fifty years ago this week, the turning point of the Civil War transpired in the sleepy town of Gettysburg, Pa. From Culp’s Hill to Little Round Top to Pickett’s Charge, the battle raged for three days, with over 50,000 casualties.
Having read Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel “The Killer Angels” and viewed Ron Maxwell’s remarkable film “Gettysburg,” I thought I had a firm understanding of this tragic conflict. But it was not until I climbed the slope at Little Round Top and walked the path of Pickett’s Charge as a part of a three-day 8th-grade leadership trip, led by one of our school parents, that I came to truly fathom the importance of this decisive battle.
During our visit, students walked the battlefields and learned how the decisions, actions, and character of a leader define the probability of success or failure—from Confederate Generals Lee and Longstreet to Union Officers Hancock, Meade, and Chamberlain.
We also discussed how the magnitude of devastation during this battle was not lost on Abraham Lincoln, as he memorialized the dead four months later in his concluding words of the Gettysburg Address: “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
Lincon’s idea of a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” assumed a new meaning to our eighth graders as they stood in Gettysburg’s cemetery, surrounded by markers of hundreds of soldiers, and took turns reciting lines from Lincoln’s 272-word speech.
Four score and seven years on from the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln acknowledged the right to self-government, while declaring a God-given “new birth of freedom" to slaves and the dedication “to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Lincoln revisited this core concept in his Second Inaugural Address, which abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass called a “sacred speech." For while the First Inaugural focused on the laws of government, the second one centered upon the laws of the universe and the laws of God—especially urgent after 600,000 people had died and entire cities had been burned to the ground.
Quoting from Psalm 19:9, Lincoln declared, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”
At the conclusion of our Gettysburg trip, our students grappled with the fact that it would take another hundred years and a dedicated leader to see the idea that “all men are created equal” come to fruition under civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Tracing the path of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, Rev. King too would reclaim those words that had yet to fully take hold in America in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
Echoing St. Paul’s challenge to the church of Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” Rev. King proclaimed: “When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
As men, women, and children of all races and backgrounds walk the fields of Gettysburg this summer, let them not forget the deep faith, courage, and leadership the soldiers and officers demonstrated, as well the future American leaders who would ensure this battle was not fought in vain.
Image courtesy of the National Park Service.
John A. Murray is the headmaster of The Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, Md.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.