GETTYSBURG — We are met on a great battlefield of the Civil War.
It was here 150 years ago that the war turned, that its conclusion, while not visible, was at least imaginable. And it was here, four months later, that a 270-word speech transformed the war from a struggle to save the Union to one to save the soul of the country.
Many acts of heroism occurred here, most of them lost to history. Many acts of folly and futility occurred here, one of them (Pickett’s Charge) preserved in a thousand histories and in a nation’s collective memory. Ten remarkable sentences of enduring wisdom were uttered here, memorized by generations of Americans who share the liberty that Abraham Lincoln assured was won here.
Pressed into the soil here were the footfalls of Robert E. Lee, George G. Meade and George Pickett; of 50,000 men who would be counted as casualties; of many multiples more who would survive; and, in November 1863, of Lincoln himself — making Gettysburg perhaps the only American town of 2,400 people ever to bear witness to the toil of so many figures of such grandeur.
Gettysburg is more than three times bigger than it was a century and a half ago, but it remains one of the few towns of its size that does not require a state to identify its location.
Gettysburg is not so much a Pennsylvania town as an American icon. Like Valley Forge, it belongs to our common history more than to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Both are obscure corners of the country sanctified by sacrifice — consecrated, you might say, far above our poor power to add or detract.
But here, even more than at Valley Forge, we feel the terrible toll of the terrible swift sword, the great losses suffered by warriors from both sides when the men abandoned the altars of the evening dews and damps and slipped quietly into battle, some of them moving silently to their violent deaths.