Remembering the Sacrifice: A Weekend in Gettysburg


I am on the way home from Gettysburg with my students after concluding the second day of our Staff Ride. As always it has been a really good experience. We concluded the event by going to the Soldier’s Cemetary, which is located on the western section of Cemetary Hill. It is the place that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address as well as the final resting place of many of the Union soldiers who died during the battle or shortly thereafter from their wounds. Many of these men are unknowns. They are buried in sections which simply note how many unknown soldiers are in that section, and each of these graves is marked by a small stone engraved with a number.

I strongly believe that all citizens should have to make a pilgrimage to Gettysburg. I do not limit this belief to the military professionals who have to prepare for war and fight it when it breaks out, like the men and women of my class. But I  especially believe others need to walk the battlefield and be taught by someone that can put the events of the battle into proper perspective. This includes the politicians and policy makers that get us into wars, the think tank wonks and business leaders who profit from war, and the pundits and preachers who stir up the passions of people to support war, need to walk the battlefield.

Guy Sager wrote in his book The Forgotton Soldier:

“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”

The same is true today. Too many people, especially those with “no skin in the game” eagerly urge the President to throw U.S. Military power into conflicts that have little chance of being solved by the application of that power. To me it seems like the lives of our military personnel are cheap for many people, especially the politicians, pundits and preachers; but also the war profiteers, while most citizens are apathetic at best, as bumper sticker patriotism is easy.

Basically this is because for most people war is remote from their lives. The military is a voluntary organization with comparatively stringent standards required for enlistees. Even at the peak of our Iraq-Afghanistan wartime strength under one percent of the population actually served in the military. So when I hear people yammering about committing troops to places that many citizens, including the politicians, pundits and preachers, cannot even find on a map, with no plan or purpose once we commit ourselves to war, I get spun up.

For me Gettysburg, and many other battlefields are powerful reminders of the cost of war. They are also reminders of the grave responsibility of those who take a nation into war or who counsel leaders to go to war, responsibilities that many people seem to take lightly. I think that those with that responsibility, which in a democracy is all of us, need that reminder and most of us don’t get it.

Since so few citizens actually serve in the military, I think that everyone should spend two or three days walking that battlefield and learn the lessons as they stand in the elements, exposed to whatever the weather gods can throw at them. People should learn the lessons when they are tired and uncomfortable. This weekend the weather was very similar to what the men than fought at Gettysburg experienced, it was warm and humid, and walking across the field that Pickett’s soldiers advanced, or over the craggy rocks of Little Round Top gave us an appreciation for what those soldiers experienced, without the shooting and death.

As I walked the cemetary with my students spent some time talking about the number of casulaties incurred at Gettysburg, because there is a real flesh and blood cost associated with war, it’s not like the movies or a video game.

Abraham Lincoln reminded the nation of that cost, and the responsibility of the nation, when he spoke “a few words” following the main speech dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetary. Those immortal words are known as the Gettysburg Address. I read them to my students as I dispatched them to walk around the cemetary, and I post them here as well:

 “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like it when soldiers die in vain.


Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, philosophy, Political Commentary

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