The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 will always be our signature storyline.
But the full meaning of this iconic American site runs much deeper. Over the last 156 years, Gettysburg has been less a place of conflict, than a place of healing and redemption.
Here is a slice of this complicated story.
Healing begins quickly after the battle, as the 2,400 citizens of Gettysburg start to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and care for thousands of injured soldiers, without much regard for Union or Confederate uniform. Not everyone was kind, but much kindness was shown.
This continued for months. Women like Elizabeth Thorn, six-months pregnant, buries soldiers in the town cemetery, which is why a monument to a pregnant woman resides in Gettysburg. An African-American woman, Lydia Hamilton Smith, starts regular trips into the countryside on a wagon to collect supplies for soldiers and townspeople. Quaker nurses from the region stream into Gettysburg to care for the wounded. So do surgeons.
Victorious Union forces erect a tent city hospital to treat wounded soldiers of both armies. One of the most touching parts of this particular narrative of healing is Confederate soldiers writing home while recovering from their wounds, telling their loved ones they are being cared for as well as Union soldiers.
President Abraham Lincoln arrives four months later to deliver the Gettysburg Address, the most famous speech by an American president. He beautifully commemorates sacrifice and resolves to continue the war, but he offers a tone of humility and a message of redemption promoting healing.
Interestingly, in his Address, Lincoln never mentions North or South, Union or Confederate; he starts with the birth of democracy in our Declaration of Independence and finishes with the admonition that a "government of the people, by the people, for the people" must not "perish from the earth."
Lincoln begins and ends the Gettysburg Address with the fate of the great American democratic experiment.
Healing continued at Gettysburg until the generation of Civil War soldiers passed away. In 1913, for instance, some 50,000 Civil War soldiers come to Gettysburg on the 50th anniversary of the battle, reminiscing with one another and listening as President Woodrow Wilson calls them out as enemies no longer, but generous friends.
In 1938, on the 75th anniversary of the battle, a small number of Civil War veterans still alive listen as President Franklin Roosevelt dedicates an Eternal Light Peace Memorial, speaking of once-divided loyalties now meeting in a united loyalty.
Finally, in 1963—100 years after the battle—Vice President Lyndon Johnson issues a powerful reminder that soldier reunions were healing events for the white soldiers who fought but had sidestepped the slavery issue precipitating the conflict. He spoke of the urgent need for racial reconciliation in America the year before the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.
A total of fourteen presidents of the United States have spoken on the Gettysburg battlefield, usually with healing in mind.
Simply stated, Gettysburg is the site of both a monumental conflict (the largest in the history of North America) and extraordinary kindness and healing. As such, it has extraordinary lessons to teach Americans in every generation, and perhaps especially so, during this recent season of ill-will that has arisen among us.
Back in 2017, the Gettysburg Foundation launched its educational initiative called Gettysburg Revisited, which is aimed at taking the message to all Americans that reconciliation can follow even the most bitter conflict. So far, we've held 40 events in 12 states, Washington, D.C., and by invitation, even one in Europe.
Our objective is non-partisan, historically informed conversation that serves our democracy.
For instance, we discuss the genius of the Founding Fathers in designing a system of government that divides and fragments the exercise of political power, trusting no one with too much political authority.
After all, the world is littered with totalitarian regimes, but our Founders created the world's longest-running democracy by mixing key features of the European Enlightenment—rule by law, reason, scientific progress, religious tolerance—with uniquely American innovations, such as an intricate system of shared and separated governmental powers.
We examine in greater detail the post-battle healing that happened in Gettysburg as a way of leading into conversation about ways to improve civility in our democracy at a time that polls show Americans are deeply concerned about the tone of our politics. We suggest a handful of ideas to improve the situation without trying to convince anyone to a particular point of view.
Not every American is interested in detailed military history, but every American should visit (or revisit) Gettysburg and reimagine it as a place where "the better angels of our nature," to borrow one of Lincoln's most famous phrases, so often surfaced.
In the weeks and months ahead, we'll be using this blog to tell this story of Gettysburg and the American democratic experiment more fully. You'll read more posts from me, but also from a range of authors who will make the issues relevant to every generation of Americans.
As the adage goes, we need to earn our democracy in every generation.
Matthew C. Moen, Ph.D.