In 1978, my parents took us on an unforgettable trip. I was eleven years old and spent the most of the month of June in a pickup camper riding across the United States. There were numerous memorable places from Custer’s battlefield at the Little Bighorn, to the South Dakota Badlands as well as Philadelphia, Washington D. C., Charleston, SC, Disney World and New Orleans. However, one of the most memorable stops on a trip of memorable places was Gettysburg.
I can’t say that at eleven years old that I had any idea of the significance of the location or the battle. The most that I knew about Gettysburg was the Gettysburg address that I had had to memorize the previous year in school. I remember a wealth of monuments memorializing one thing or another…but I didn't know the significance of Little Round Top, Cemetery Hill or Pickett’s charge. However, I did recognize the incredible loss of life while looking at the cemetery and seeing all those little white headstones. I also remember the Eisenhower farm out in the middle of nowhere.
Since that time, I've done some studying of Gettysburg and understand that it was probably one of the most significant battles of the Civil War for many reasons. It stopped the path into the North by the Confederates and from then until the end of the war, General Robert E. Lee never was able to mount a successful offensive incursion into the north. It was also a significant victory for the Union…although I can’t see it as much of a victory when 23,055 men were killed compared to the South’s 23, 231 casualties for a grand total of 57,225 men killed. Those three days of battle from July 1 to July 3 that occurred 150 years ago produced the largest number of casualties in any battle. I've since learned of the importance of the actions of Gen. John Buford, the courage of Col. Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top, and the despair that Gen. Pickett faced when most of his entire brigade was destroyed in one seemingly useless charge.
However, the one thing that always remains for me is the Gettysburg Address….”Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition, that all men are created equal!” Believe it or not…I still remember that from part from memory. Back when I was in 5th grade, we had to learn the preamble to the Constitution, the opening of the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address. I might have a problem doing them all from memory now…but when I was eleven years old it was ingrained in my head. Perhaps that is why, Independence Hall and Gettysburg took on such special significance to me. I was in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed and I stood at the spot that President Lincoln delivered his personally written address. I've read that there were several who spoke for long minutes on the day of the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, but it is Lincoln’s words that have survived in our country’s memory.
On that day, back in 1978, when I stood at the spot where Lincoln made his speech, there was a monument with speech written in what appeared to be Lincoln’s handwriting. There must have been about fifty people looking at it and many were complaining that they couldn't read the handwriting. My mother spoke up and said my daughter can recite the speech. I was probably too young to really realize the position that my mother had put me in…but there I was reciting the Gettysburg Address to all of those surrounding that monument. I suppose my mother was proud of my memory and the fact that her eleven year old daughter knew the speech from heart. I've never forgotten standing in front of all those people, and while I should have been nervous, I wasn't.
Today, I think about what it must have been like in Gettysburg on that July 4th in 1863. It must have seemed like those people were living in hell on earth. Their homes and town were destroyed by the battle, and there had to be a stench of the dead and dying that would have pervaded everything and everyone. Nothing was ever the same – the little town of Gettysburg would always be known for this battle. But it was also known for the last words that Lincoln spoke in his famous speech…”that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth!” So, today I remember what happened in 1776 but also what happened in 1863 and remember those who helped create this country and keep it together during a bloody Civil War. Happy 4th of July!