The second and final time the Rebel Army would cross the Northern border, the Gettysburg campaign had been a gamble from the beginning. Southerners had recently won a series of battlefield victories, and Lee reckoned that a decisive win on Northern territory would convince Lincoln to sue for peace. The war had already dragged on far longer than anyone thought it would, at enormous cost, and sentiment was building to bring it to a merciful and honorable conclusion.
The high-water mark of the War, Gettysburg signaled a historic turning point, and for the South a stunning reversal of fortune. With its decisive defeat there, the possibility of Southern victory simply vanished. From that moment forward, the South’s eventual capitulation became inevitable, an open secret, a when, not an if.
Historians have long wondered how Lee, widely acknowledged as America’s most capable general, could have made such an egregious and costly blunder. Some blame his faltering judgement on a heart weakened by two-plus years of unrelenting stress and staggering responsibility. Many of Lee’s surviving commanders, including George Pickett, never forgave Lee, and remained bitter to the end of their lives.
The most well-known Battle of the Civil War, Gettysburg came to be a potent symbol of the ghastly futility of that conflict. Four months after the Battle, a crowd of several thousand gathered to witness the dedication of the Gettysburg Memorial Cemetery. President Abraham Lincoln delivered the brief invocation. It was a masterpiece. Austere yet magisterial, sorrowful yet uplifting, magnanimous yet resolute, the Gettysburg Address became perhaps the most famous wartime speech in history.
To citizens of the early twenty-first century, the American Civil war seems as remote as the signing of the Magna Carta, more sepia-toned myth than fact. But it, and the millions who experienced it, were once just as alive and as real as you and I. Their very real suffering and struggle seem almost incomprehensible to us, living as we do in an age of extraordinary comfort, plenty, and safety. But in a way, that sacrifice paved the way for us. We would not be who we are today were it not for them who endured the unendurable.
So on this historic day, let each of us reflect for a moment on those who have gone before, who made possible through their suffering the peaceable, prosperous, inconceivably plentiful way of life we enjoy today.