On November 19th, 2013, Americans celebrated the sesquicentennial anniversary of the famous speech President Abraham Lincoln gave in 1863 during a ceremony to dedicate the Soldier’s National Cemetery at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Lincoln’s famous words included the reminder that our nation was, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And he declared that the Civil War needed to be won by the United States to ensure, “a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
While Lincoln’s speech is now recognized as a defining moment in American history, back then it was criticized by newspapers aligned with the Democrats – his political opposition in the North. For example, the Chicago Times, a Democratic newspaper, editorialized, “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.”
The advent of the Civil War had split the Democratic Party into the two camps – the War Democrats and the Copperheads. The War Democrats supported President Lincoln’s prosecution of the war against the rebellious Confederacy, but they didn’t control their party. The Copperheads opposed the war and wanted to make peace with the Confederates and allow the continuation of slavery. Many Copperheads were racist and saw no need to free African Americans, especially because the war was so costly and had led to a great increase in the power of the Federal government over the states. And some Copperheads were merchants who had lost profitable trade with the South.
So Lincoln’s political opposition was primarily focused on the supremacy of states’ rights, no matter the cause, and the protection of wealth, no matter the morality. These were the same basic grievances of the Confederacy. (Today, ironically, they’re favorite issues of the modern Republican Party’s powerful right wing.)
I visited the Gettysburg National Military Park during the summer of 2013 with a couple of friends because we wanted to say we were there on the 150th anniversary of the battle. It’s a place that every American should visit. The National Park Service has done a great job of making it easy for any visitor, no matter their knowledge of American history, to understand what happened there. One of the things I came away with was the realization that all of the soldiers in the Union Army understood the importance of the battle, and were determined to win, no matter the cost – even if it meant giving their life. Lincoln recognized this fact with his speech.
We took a couple of days and toured the entire battlefield, including the Confederate positions along Seminary Ridge. This was the place where their commander Robert E. Lee had launched his ill-conceived assault that went uphill and across open ground to try and pierce the middle of the Union lines on the decisive 3rd day of the battle. The attack, now popularly known as Pickett’s Charge, failed miserably. It’s considered a turning point in the Civil War, and is often called the high-water mark of the Confederacy.
At the jumping off point for Pickett’s charge the National Park Service had mowed a lane in the tall grass across the entire three-quarters-of-a-mile wide field that had separated the two armies in 1863. The purpose was to allow visitors to easily walk the distance and personally experience what the Confederate soldiers had done that day. While we were standing there a white man with his middle-school-aged daughter walked by us and started across the field. I overheard him tell her that she had to take the walk so that she would appreciate her Southern heritage.
This troubled me, and it still does. I respect the bravery and sacrifice of those Confederate soldiers, but they fought for the wrong reasons – and that’s an important thing for us to continue to recognize. Union commander Ulysses S. Grant felt similarly about this. He accepted Lee’s surrender in 1865 and later wrote that, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
Even today, with an African American president, we need to be reminded that we still haven’t fully achieved Lincoln’s vision for our country. People who try and claim that the Civil War was really about states’ rights should be roundly condemned as un-American . (Go see the movie 12 Years a Slave if you think slavery had a benevolent side.)
It’s difficult, and almost inexplicable, for me to understand why President Obama didn’t speak at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Gettysburg Address. Perhaps he felt he couldn’t improve on Lincoln’s work. But he should have done something significant to recognize the importance of the occasion.
As for the brave Union soldiers who gave their lives at Gettysburg, I give you the words of Confederate General Pickett, who led the doomed charge against the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. Years later, when asked why the charge had failed, he replied, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”