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Casualties of Gettysburg

[Picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: The worst sight in war is a battlefield after the battle. At Gettysburg, where there were 50,000 casualties, the scene was beyond belief. Two gigantic armies, Robert E. Lee's army of 70,000 and George Gordon Meade's army of 90,000, had fought the greatest battle of the Civil War in a college town of 2,500 residents. They shot the place, and each other, to pieces.

By the time George Pickett's assault line had been torn to shreds in the battle's terrible climax, even the buzzards had been driven off. Before Union soldiers left in pursuit of Lee's shattered army, they buried as many of the dead as they could in shallow graves. But heavy rains washed away these thin blankets of earth, leaving heads and feet sticking out the ground. Mangled body parts were everywhere, and sun-blackened, swollen corpses were found by townspeople hidden behind rocks or in heavy underbrush.

[Picture of casualties from the battle]

Local families who went to Gettysburg after the battle, looking for their boys, found hands and arms in trees; boots with feet in them; bodies flattened into shapeless horrors by close-range artillery fire; headless men, leading against trees, their arms shot off. If they came by train, they passed through the town to get to the battlefield. And virtually every house had been turned into a hospital in an effort to care for the 22,000 wounded men left behind by both armies. As stunned townspeople and grieving parents passed through this scene from hell, they must have asked themselves: What was this for? And was it worth it?

The Gettysburg Address

That summer, Abraham Lincoln himself was searching for some way to explain to the American people this frightful war, these staggering sacrifices. Not long after word reached Washington of the victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke to a crowd outside the White House, telling them how fitting it was that these twin triumphs had occurred on the nation's birthday. "How long ago is it," he said. "Eighty odd years, since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal.'"

The war, he told the crowd, had begun as an effort to subvert that idea; and now the rebels had suffered two staggering defeats on the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. "Gentlemen," he concluded, "this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion." Lincoln made that speech, the most memorable in American history, the following November.

[Picture of the crowd at the Gettysburg Address]

The occasion was the dedication of a cemetery for the Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg. In three minutes, in just 272 words, Lincoln explained what the war was about and why it had to continue. It was a fight, he said, to preserve and advance two fundamental American ideas: constitutional liberty and human equality. The nation created by the Constitution of 1787 was a permanent bond that could not be broken by a discontented minority.

As Lincoln had said, in private, two years before: "[the war] must settle this question... whether in a free government, the minority have the right to break up the government when they chose. If they fail, it will go far to prove the incapacity of the people to govern."

At Gettysburg he reiterated this in soaring language. These men have died, and many more would die, he said, so that "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth." But what began as a struggle to preserve democracy, had become, as well, a war to insure what Lincoln called a "new birth of freedom," a government "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

Lincoln did an amazing thing in his Gettysburg Address. He informally amended the Constitution, which tolerated slavery, pledging the nation to the idea of human equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Later in the war, when the country grew weary of the killing, Lincoln was pressured to drop emancipation as a condition of peace. He flatly refused.

[Picture of African American troops]

Over 130,000 African Americans were then fighting for the Union, and he would not "betray them," he said. They were fighting for the promise of freedom. "And the promise made," he said, "must be kept." This is why Lincoln, along with generals Grant and Sherman, believed that the war would continue, and become even bloodier: because the South would never, on its own, eliminate slavery.

William Tecumseh Sherman put it more bluntly: "We have not yet killed enough," he told another general. "We must make this war so fatal and horrible that a century will pass before...new traitors will dare to resort to violence and war to achieve their ends."

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