The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 5, 2013

Jean Griffith, guest columnist: Looking for Gettsburg's true meaning

By Jean Griffith
Special to The Globe

CARTHAGE, Mo. — Seven score and 10 years ago, America was at war with itself. Slavery had divided the nation into two regions, the North and the South.

With the election in the fall of 1860 of Republican Abraham Lincoln, the Southern states had essentially “nullified” the democratic process establishing the Confederate States of America.

By the summer of 1863, the country had been at war for more than two years. The casualty lists of killed and wounded from the battlefields of Bull Run, Shiloh and Antietam had shocked the sensibilities of the American people and the world. And the blood-letting continued with no end in sight.

In the West, having solved the strategic riddle of Vicksburg, Miss., the army of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his second-in-command William Tecumseh Sherman was now poised to lay siege to that port city on the great river. Back East, in the mind of Confederate Gen. Robert Edward Lee, what the South needed was a dramatic victory to relieve pressure from beleaguered Vicksburg, to bring diplomatic recognition by Great Britain, to bolster anti-war sentiment in the North and perhaps recognition of the Confederate independence by Lincoln himself.

Such an audacious, bold and daring plan was proposed by Lee at a meeting of top Confederate brass in Richmond on May 15, 1863. Lee proposed invading Pennsylvania with an army of 75,000 strong with the purpose of defeating the enemy on his own soil. Brimming with confidence, Lee had to reorganize his chain-of-command with the untimely death of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a casualty of the Promethean Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.

Meanwhile, having grown weary with the questionable decision making of his commander of the Army of the Potomac, President Abraham Lincoln had replaced Gen. “Fighting Joe” Hooker with Gen. George Meade, a defensive strategy specialist, to command his army of 90,000. This time the president had the right man commanding his army in the right place at the opportune moment. All this transpired as Lee’s legions trudged northward. Through the Shenandoah Valley they passed, across the Potomac River and into Maryland toward the Pennsylvania border, raising dust on the dirt roads along the way.

During the last days of Hooker’s tenure, the Army of the Potomac had located Lee’s army, shadowing its every movement, keeping a constant eye on the Virginian’s whereabouts as his army moved across Maryland and into Pennsylvania.

At this juncture, well in advance of the rebel main body, Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill’s men heard rumors of a cache of shoes at a little village called Gettysburg, a strategic road junction. Near the vicinity of the town, Hill’s Johnnie Reb infantry made contact with John Buford’s Billy Yank Cavalry. Shots were fired, and the report of the skirmish attracted both armies which rushed toward the commotion. What transpired there beginning July 1 to July 3, 1863, was the greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere.

For three days two armies fought savagely to occupy places which would become a part of legend and lore in U.S. military history. At times the infantry units faced off at point blank range, fighting hand-to-hand, bayonet-to-bayonet.

The actual Battle of Gettysburg itself has come to represent the South’s war effort in microcosm: initial success, steadfast valor and courage which nonetheless ended in ultimate disaster.

By the end of the third day, generally regarded as the high water mark of the Confederacy, Lee’s army was reeling and forced to withdraw back into Virginia. Three days later, on July 6, Lincoln learned of Vicksburg’s surrender.  What happened next to the battlefield grounds where more than 3,500 graves remained after the Civil War is a tribute to governmental intervention. This time our government did it right.

To protect the battlefield from real estate developers who would do the unthinkable and desecrate the memory of the more than 50,000 killed and wounded who fell at Gettysburg, the U.S. Congress placed the battlefield under the management of the War Department during the late 19th century.

Today, it is managed by the Department of the Interior under the watchful eye of the National Park Service, whose professional demeanor and expertise in caring for such sacred places cannot be overstated.

Trying to make sense of all the bloodshed during the summer of 1863, and finding a more symbolic meaning for Gettysburg, is a difficult task. Hollywood has tried to re-create it on film but, in my opinion, has fallen short (Ken Burns’ documentary being one notable exception).

Then there is, of course, Lincoln’s magnificent speech. Slightly four months later in November that same year, the president would speak at Gettysburg, dedicating the farmland surrounding the town as a cemetery where men of both armies were interred.

Just 268 words in length, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address ranks with Franklin Roosevelt’s Declaration of War speech, John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural address, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Ronald Reagan’s address at the Berlin Wall, and President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address as one of the greatest ever spoken in public by an American dignitary.

That speech in and of itself gives meaning to the selfless sacrifice of those who died there. Perhaps it is Lincoln whose words challenge all of us to make certain “… 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.”

Perhaps this is Gettysburg’s true meaning.

Jean Griffith teaches at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University. He lives in Carthage.