Last Friday I went to Gettysburg, the iconic American battlefield, with my youngest daughter, Amanda. She has been my companion on prior journeys to Shiloh, Chickamauga and, more recently, Monticello and Montpelier. I am also a proud member of the board of directors of the Gettysburg Foundation.
We were privileged to spend five hours with Dr. Gabor Boritt, former chair of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. He told us his family story, surviving the Nazis then the Soviets in Hungary, before fleeing after the failed revolution in Budapest in 1956. He was discovered by the International Rescue Committee, flown to the U.S. and placed in Yankton, a town in rural South Dakota. There he began to read speeches by Abraham Lincoln as a way to learn English. He ultimately became one of the leading Lincoln scholars.
For Boritt, the battlefield is far more than a shrine to the soldiers who perished in the conflict. It is the stories of those soldiers that endure.
As we walked around Little Round Top, the small hill that anchored the Union left flank, he began to talk about Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain: “He was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College. He had 380 men from Maine. He was placed at the end of the line and told by another recent college graduate, Col. Strong Vincent (Harvard 1859), to hold his position at all costs. And that he did, through six attacks by a force four times larger than his own. When he ran out of ammunition, he ordered a bayonet charge down the hill that carried the day.”
Boritt rode his bike with us up to the National Cemetery, the first of its kind, which Lincoln dedicated in November 1863. It was there that he delivered the Gettysburg Address, a two-minute discourse on the meaning of America. The closing line of the Address is poetry of the highest order, said Dr. Boritt: “He wanted to put the battle into the context of the long arc of American history, that government ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’ was worth the bloody struggle and must be pursued to the end.”
The Visitor’s Center was redone nearly a decade ago. Its centerpiece is a cyclorama painted in the 1880s by a Frenchman who captured the epic charge by Confederate General Pickett on the third day of the battle. This was the precursor to the movie business, according to Boritt, drawing immense crowds as it toured the U.S. Today, with a sound and light show, it feels as if there are dozens of interconnected small dramas, from crazed horses attempting to escape the shells and noise, to wounded Confederates limping back to their lines, to Union soldiers rushing forward to fill the gap at the wall of defense.
My daughter was most taken with a 20-minute film, narrated by Morgan Freeman, that puts the battle into context as the turning point of the Civil War. The invasion of the North by General Robert E. Lee was an attempt to pressure the North to stop the fighting and accept Southern independence. With elections pending in 1864, and a growing peace movement, perhaps this was the master stroke needed to elect a new president. But for her, the war was fought over slavery. As Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand… half slave and half free.” The triumph of the North set the country on a course of industrialization, immigration and urbanization, with scale and diversity as hallmarks.
We rode our bikes for two hours around the battlefield, through the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Devils Den and Culp’s Hill. We noticed that every monument was built by a state, most notably the massive Pennsylvania Memorial and the castle memorial to the New York regiments on Little Round Top, with the well-worn nose on Col. Patrick Henry “Paddy” O’Rorke rubbed for good luck by visitors. There are very few Confederate statues, just General Lee and General James Longstreet, plus a few states such as North Carolina.
There is a serenity about the place, a sense of the American journey. You come away more aware than ever of the importance of leaders, such as President Lincoln, who are able to acknowledge the feeling of loss but can establish a narrative to which we can aspire for all time.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.