Casualties of Gettysburg
Miller: The worst sight in war is a battlefield after the battle. At
Gettysburg, where there were 50,000 casualties, the scene was beyond belief.
Two gigantic armies, Robert E. Lee's army of 70,000 and George Gordon Meade's
army of 90,000, had fought the greatest battle of the Civil War in a college
town of 2,500 residents. They shot the place, and each other, to pieces.
By the time George Pickett's assault line had been torn to shreds in the
battle's terrible climax, even the buzzards had been driven off. Before Union
soldiers left in pursuit of Lee's shattered army, they buried as many of the
dead as they could in shallow graves. But heavy rains washed away these thin
blankets of earth, leaving heads and feet sticking out the ground. Mangled
body parts were everywhere, and sun-blackened, swollen corpses were found by
townspeople hidden behind rocks or in heavy underbrush.
Local families who went to Gettysburg after the battle, looking for their boys,
found hands and arms in trees; boots with feet in them; bodies flattened into
shapeless horrors by close-range artillery fire; headless men, leading against
trees, their arms shot off. If they came by train, they passed through the
town to get to the battlefield. And virtually every house had been turned into
a hospital in an effort to care for the 22,000 wounded men left behind by both
armies. As stunned townspeople and grieving parents passed through this scene
from hell, they must have asked themselves: What was this for? And was it worth
The Gettysburg Address
That summer, Abraham Lincoln himself was searching for some way to explain to
the American people this frightful war, these staggering sacrifices. Not long
after word reached Washington of the victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg,
Lincoln spoke to a crowd outside the White House, telling them how fitting it
was that these twin triumphs had occurred on the nation's birthday. "How long
ago is it," he said. "Eighty odd years, since on the Fourth of July for the
first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives,
assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created
The war, he told the crowd, had begun as an effort to subvert that idea; and
now the rebels had suffered two staggering defeats on the anniversary of the
Declaration of Independence. "Gentlemen," he concluded, "this is a glorious
theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy
of the occasion." Lincoln made that speech, the most memorable in American
history, the following November.
The occasion was the dedication of a cemetery for the Union soldiers killed at
Gettysburg. In three minutes, in just 272 words, Lincoln explained what the
war was about and why it had to continue. It was a fight, he said, to preserve
and advance two fundamental American ideas: constitutional liberty and human
equality. The nation created by the Constitution of 1787 was a permanent bond
that could not be broken by a discontented minority.
As Lincoln had said, in private, two years before: "[the war] must settle this
question... whether in a free government, the minority have the right to break
up the government when they chose. If they fail, it will go far to prove the
incapacity of the people to govern."
At Gettysburg he reiterated this in soaring language. These men have died, and
many more would die, he said, so that "government of the people, by the people,
and for the people shall not perish from the earth." But what began as a
struggle to preserve democracy, had become, as well, a war to insure what
Lincoln called a "new birth of freedom," a government "dedicated to the
proposition that all men are created equal."
Lincoln did an amazing thing in his Gettysburg Address. He informally amended
the Constitution, which tolerated slavery, pledging the nation to the idea of
human equality embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Later in the war,
when the country grew weary of the killing, Lincoln was pressured to drop
emancipation as a condition of peace. He flatly refused.
Over 130,000 African Americans were then fighting for the Union, and he would
not "betray them," he said. They were fighting for the promise of freedom. "And
the promise made," he said, "must be kept." This is why Lincoln, along with
generals Grant and Sherman, believed that the war would continue, and become
even bloodier: because the South would never, on its own, eliminate slavery.
William Tecumseh Sherman put it more bluntly: "We have not yet killed
enough," he told another general. "We must make this war so fatal and horrible
that a century will pass before...new traitors will dare to resort to violence
and war to achieve their ends."