What Gettysburg Means

Published August 4, 2010

My home is a forty-five minute drive from Gettysburg National Military Park, a site I've visited many times, never without some emotion. The nature of that emotion crystallized for me a few years ago when I took some Australian friends on an audio tour of the battlefield with the help of Father Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary's Church in Greenville, South Carolina, who drove the other car in our small motorcade. (That Father Newman styled his vehicle the “CSS Greenville” will tell you something about his approach to what some folks in his part of the country still tend to call the War of Northern Aggression.)

In any event, when we stood at the center of Cemetery Ridge, a few yards from where “Lo” Armistead had fallen during Pickett's Charge, Father Newman brought the whole meaning of Gettysburg into focus for our guests, and for me, when he remarked to the Australians, “This is where America was made.”

I think that's right. If Gettysburg was the pivot of the Civil War, and if the Civil War changed the country from “the United States are…” to “the United States is…” (as America's Homer, Shelby Foote, often pointed out), then the United States as we know it was forged on July 1-3, 1863, outside a small crossroads town in Pennsylvania. Yes, it took another century for the promise of “the United States is…” to be vindicated by the moral revolution that produced the civil rights revolution. And yes, the promise of equality remains to be secured for today's endangered members of the American community: the unborn, the radically handicapped, the “burdensome” elderly.” But that fact — that democracy is an ongoing experiment in a people's capacity to live freedom nobly — does not change the fact that Gettysburg was the pivot.

The pivot between the Civil War and the civil rights revolution may also have taken place at Gettysburg, at least in symbolic terms, on July 4, 1913: the last Independence Day before my mother was born. That Glorious Fourth witnessed a “Great Reunion” of the living veterans of Gettysburg, 54,000 of whom helped each other walk across Culp's Hill, navigate Devil's Den, cross over the Roundtops — and re-enact Pickett's Charge, often on crutches and in wheelchairs. As the veterans of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia slowly and painfully made their way up Cemetery Ridge to the Bloody Angle and the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy, their former antagonists of the Army of the Potomac — “those people,” as Robert E. Lee called them — waited, as they had a half-century before. This time, however, the men of the grey and the men of the blue embraced, commingling tears rather than blood.

A day later, two Civil War veterans, one from the South and one from the North, walked through the town of Gettysburg together, bought a hatchet together in a hardware story, re-ascended Cemetery Ridge together, and buried the hatchet together at the Bloody Angle: a story of which I was recently reminded by an article on the Great Reunion in Drexel University's on-line magazine, The Smart Set. The same story had occurred to me more than once over the past twenty years, principally when European colleagues blamed this or that outburst of (often-vicious) ethnic violence in the Balkans, the Caucusus, or wherever on animosities dating from three, four, or five centuries before. When I mentioned, in such conversations, that Americans had once fought history's most sanguinary civil war but had forged out of that bloodletting a new sense of commonality, the Old World colleagues would often look at me with a certain pity, as if here was another example of American callowness.

The colleagues were wrong. The reconciliation that took place between the Civil War and the civil rights revolution was not an indicator of historical insouciance, nor was the Great Reunion of 1913 a moment in a long collapse into cultural decadence. From the cauldron that was Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, was born a drama of moral growth and national maturation that sets an example for the world — and for future generations of Americans.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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