Monday, September 5, 2011

Dream Summer: At Gettysburg and "...the last full measure of devotion..."

This is a post in an occasional series entitled Dream Summer of our family's cross country trip in the summer of 2001. We will conclude on September 11 as we observe the ten year anniversary of 911. For more in this series, just click on the Dream Summer label.

On our way to Boston, just north of Roanoke, Virginia on Interstate 81, I noticed  an exit that would have taken us to Appomattox where Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Many historic battles took place in this area, so I looked north along our route to see what might be of interest. We only had time for one stop. Jerry and I both agreed our sole detour had to be Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

The depot where Lincoln arrived on the train.
Every schoolchild in America has probably at one time or another had to memorize in either part or whole the Gettysburg Address. I’ve always had a mental picture of President Abraham Lincoln, worn and tired from the demands of war, standing in Gettysburg for that brief address having no idea that generations later we in this country would still be reciting those same words in schools and institutions of higher learning.

We walked the battlefield, the cemetery and listened to a park ranger lecture. However, later, when I filled out the field trip sheet at the beginning of home school, the experience that most impressed my children was the cyclorama. A giant circular painting, along with dramatic sound affects and lighting told the story of the Battle of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. The loss of life and the sorrow that accompanied the battle was almost more than my heart could bear.

On three July days in l863, Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee, and Union troops under the command of General George Meade clashed in the little town of Gettysburg. This culminated on July third, when 12,000 Confederates moved across open fields in an attack labeled “Pickett’s Charge.” The attack, put down by Union troops, cost more than 5,000 lives in a single hour. This ended the battle and is known as one of the most decisive battles of the war. When it was over, there was more loss of life on these fields than in any other battle fought in North America at any time--more than 51,000 were killed, wounded or missing. Many just boys.

I’ll never forget the last line of the Cyclorama presentation--a quote from one of the Confederate officers, Col. Eppa Hutton. He said, “We gained nothing but glory but lost our bravest men.” The dead and dying covered the fields of Gettysburg. The town’s people took care of all, whether north or south. Later, it was decided to create a National Cemetery in Gettysburg for the Union Dead. It was for this cemetery dedication that Lincoln came.
Me and my history weary children  in front of the Gettysburg Memorial
One of the great orators of the time, Edward Everett, was asked to give the principal address. He delivered a well-received two-hour speech. Lincoln was next and only spoke for about two minutes. Everett later said to Lincoln, “I should be glad if I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”  
 
This was a grim period in our nation’s history, but for those living under the shackles of oppression, this war bought freedom.

Freedom is always costly.

That’s a lesson I hope my children carried away that warm August day when we left Gettysburg. Psalm l05 says, “...they fell heir to what others had toiled for...” That’s where we are. We have fallen heir to the benefits of what so many gave their lives for, not only at Gettysburg, but also in every war in which we have fought.

Even with this country’s flaws, it is still great, because of so many who have given and are still giving as President Lincoln said that day, “...the last full measure of devotion...”

See Jeff Daniels' rendition of the Gettysburg address here.

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