Gettysburg was not what I had imagined. Rather than the field I pictured from Picket’s Charge, I found that it extended over several miles, along ridges occupied by the Confederate forces and other ridges occupied by the Union forces. And between the ridges, the open fields across which men charged and retreated, under fire of rifles and artillery.
Today, the battlefield sits preserved much as it was in July 1863. We drove the grounds, because of the rain. One day, I hope to return and walk the battlefield, from both sides. It is sacred ground. Baptized in blood. Honor and Tragedy. Courage and foolhardiness. I cannot conceive of such loss.
Neither can I understand what makes men (and women) charge into the face of death, despite the bodies of their comrades newly slain lying before and among them. What is it that keeps a soldier bound to duty, to the horn or whistle that launches them at the enemy? What power overcomes the paralyzing fear that must surely seize them? What prompts men and women to give their lives on the battlefield?
The three-day maelstrom of July 1-3 sacrificed 46-51,000 men, dead and wounded. More than 7 million bullets flew in the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, accompanied by many tons of artillery shells.
Fighting in the battle was Union general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who had written this after the first day of battle in Fredericksburg the previous December:
“But out of that silence rose new sounds more appalling still; a strange ventriloquism, of which you could not locate the source, a smothered moan, as if a thousand discords were flowing together into a key-note weird, unearthly, terrible to hear and bear, yet startling with its nearness; the writhing concord broken by cries for help, some begging for a drop of water, some calling on God for pity; and some on friendly hands to finish what the enemy had so horribly begun; some with delirious, dreamy voices murmuring loved names, as if the dearest were bending over them; and underneath, all the time, the deep bass note from closed lips too hopeless, or too heroic to articulate their agony…It seemed best to bestow myself between two dead men among the many left there by earlier assaults, and to draw another crosswise for a pillow out of the trampled, blood-soaked sod, pulling the flap of his coat over my face to fend off the chilling winds, and still more chilling, the deep, many voiced moan that overspread the field.” Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: 20th Maine
On Nov. 19, 1863, four and a half months after the carnage at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg. He spoke after the great orator Edward Everett, who had been invited to speak that day and who spoke for two hours.
Lincoln spoke for only two minutes, but his Gettysburg Address dedication speech is now one of the most famous speeches in American history.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that 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, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863, The Gettysburg Address.
Fifty years after the battle’s end, the now-Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain would again visit this bloodstained ground. In powerful prose written shortly before his death, the Union commander captured the meaning of this place on that day.