The Battle of Gettysburg: Reflections on 150 Years
The long days of summer are coming to an end. In palpable ways the beginning of fall has been felt by a reenergized pace and fast-moving political and international developments – which I will write on in the coming weeks and months.
This summer, however, I had moments to reflect on what has gone before and what this might mean to rising generations. I was honored to be asked to give the First-Year Walk address for incoming first-year students at Gettysburg College. For nearly a decade, these undergraduates have retraced the steps of Gettysburg students who walked from the College in 1863 to the National Cemetery that November day when Abraham Lincoln came to dedicate the gravesite and deliver a speech. As part of this new tradition, a speaker is asked to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from the very pavilion where Lincoln uttered his immortal words – and then offer some reflections on the 16th’s president’s remarks.
It was a daunting assignment. After reading Lincoln’s original address, I offered some personal thoughts to the class of 2017. This class is fortunate, as other Gettysburg College students and graduates have been, to be surrounded by a century of history that transformed our nation and the world:
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 battle-field 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.
What a humbling experience it is to read Lincoln’s unforgettable speech. And it is with a sense of honor, and some unworthiness, that I read it this evening from the very spot where Lincoln spoke those words.
The honor is even more meaningful for me because the nation’s attention has been turned, in recent times, to history and specifically to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. The scale of destruction, and the suffering endured on these surrounding fields, defies the imagination – even that of the most creative of minds.
The importance of Lincoln’s words were their inspirational qualities, and they survive today primarily because they so eloquently frame the nation’s imperfect ideal. Lincoln presents us with a timeless challenge to the living – to be better than we are.
Much about this speech, this place and what happened here has shaped my own view of the world. I was living as a young school girl in Gettysburg during the 100th anniversary events, and even before the commemorations began every year on May 30 – Memorial Day – the school children from Gettysburg area schools would walk to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves.
In addition, I grew up on a property adjacent to my grandparents’ farm – located on an important part of the battlefield, near Longstreet’s headquarters. My grandfather, Dwight Eisenhower, was a five-star general and two-term president. Despite the demands on his time, he made a point of taking his family and close associates onto the battlefield. Many of the greatest figures of the 20th century who came to visit Eisenhower were the beneficiaries of his personalized tour – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, French President Charles de Gaulle, and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, to name a few. They reflected on the past as they visited the town’s famous ridges, and came back to Eisenhower’s farm to talk about a new world in the making – after the devastation of another war; the fight against Nazi Germany.
Eisenhower knew the Gettysburg story well. Before World War I, he and his generation of West Point cadets had learned military strategy on the Gettysburg battlefield, and before graduation they came and studied the terrain and immersed themselves in the battle’s events. They saw and learned of:
- the strategic importance of occupying the high ground;
- technological advancements and their impact on strategy and tactics—and ultimately on the outcome of any war;
- the importance of pursuing a weakened enemy;
- the value of military surprise; and
- the essential elements of leadership that are necessary to inspire bravery and valor in any fighting man.
After America’s entry into World War II, almost thirty years after first Gettysburg visit, the class of 1915 produced more generals than any other. Under Dwight Eisenhower’s supreme command, they went on to take some of the highest ground of all – that of the Atlantic wall on the Normandy coast. From there they fought their way to the heart of Germany, ultimately to assure the Nazis’ defeat.
Years later, Dwight Eisenhower returned to Gettysburg. As President of the United States he continued Lincoln’s vision by pursuing a path toward “a more perfect union,” that offered steps to a “new birth of freedom” – by passing in 1957 the first civil rights legislation since reconstruction, and initiating other landmark civil rights measures.
The story of Gettysburg has personal meaning for all of us who take the time to reflect on it. This is a multifaceted place. To me, Gettysburg is synonymous with commitment – the assertion of freewill to do a duty, imbedded in which is self-sacrifice, tenacity and bravery. The battle is not just about leadership at all levels – though it is that – but there were failures and miscalculations that led to futility and bloodshed of epic proportions.
Commitment, as a human value, is now under siege today in ways too numerous to mention. Contemporary life celebrates freedom – but not in the way that Abraham Lincoln would have used that word. Today, freedom has been informally redefined as “keeping your options open” – about your career, your relationships, and the course of what you will do with your life. Freedom is now seen as a privilege, as a way to avoid being “pinned down.” It is often the mantra of those who really want the license to put themselves first.
Even in this transformational time, I believe that people are not afraid of change as much as they are afraid of making commitments.
Commitment. Look around this cemetery, take in this scene. Countless soldiers lying in these graves had been volunteers for their causes. The neighbors and brothers of both sides fought with every ounce of their beings. Six-thousand and six-hundred (6,600) Americans lost their lives in those three days, and as many as 50,000 were casualties of this tragic debacle. Right or wrong, they died as part of a great spiritual impulse, and their commitments changed the trajectory of history.
It was at this very spot that America’s 16th president—one of our very greatest – stood among the newly dug graves and uttered the words that have become the expression of who we are as a united people.
And just down the road from this site, there is a farm where our nation’s 34th President and his wife lived – also devoted public servants. Eisenhower, as a cadet, and later as commander of the WWI-era Camp Colt at Gettysburg, was deeply inspired by all that had happened here at Gettysburg in 1863. And he, too, went on to become the leader of another great cause – the liberation of Europe.
You are at the beginning. You too can devote yourself. You too can make a difference and be counted on when the crisis comes. You too can stand for something larger than yourself. Commit yourself here at Gettysburg College to preparing yourself for the future. Make your life count for something. Help our country be better than it is—this was Lincoln’s charge.
Help make our country be better than it is—for this remains our most enduring national challenge.
Congratulations and good luck to you.