Matthew C. Moen, PhD
Note from BHP Team: We got pretty excited when we were recently connected with the folks at the Gettysburg Foundation. They’re doing incredible educational work around themes of civility and inclusion—which might not be the first two words that come to mind when the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the goriest days in human history, is mentioned. But, as it turns out (and as you’ll soon read), there is a story to be told of kindness and a shared human experience during the bloodiest battle of the US Civil War.
We like the story the Gettysburg Foundation is telling, and the educational efforts they’re undertaking. Big History is a course that emphasizes the commonalities – between humans and nations, and even across species. Where politics and battles threaten and create division, a step back – a shifting in scale – reveals unity.
The BHP Teacher Community is lucky to be joined by Matthew Moen (the author of this piece) from July 24-26. Join the BHP Exchanges group to participate – your thoughts and questions are welcome!’
The streets of old Gettysburg. Baltimore Street looking up from the ‘Diamond’ (town square) near the time of the infamous three day battle in July of 1863. Public domain.
Imagine waking up on July 4, 1863, as one of 2,400 residents of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On a day normally reserved to celebrate American democracy, you face the horrifying aftermath of the largest battle of the American Civil War–three days of almost indescribable carnage in your own backyard.
More than 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had unintentionally converged on Gettysburg because of a system of roads that drew marching armies to the small Pennsylvania town. During the battle (July 1-3), over 51,000 soldiers were killed, captured, or wounded. You heard the terrorizing sounds of violence, including the largest cannonade in the history of North America.
As the Confederate army begins marching back to Virginia on July 4, your fear subsides but there is no time to savor that feeling of safety because thousands lie dead or wounded on the field of battle.
An easily overlooked, but magnificent story of Gettysburg is how compassion swiftly took the place of conflict. The residents of Gettysburg–no matter their class, race, or gender–sprang into action.
Healing began by tending to the family of one of the town’s own: A young woman named Jennie Wade had been randomly shot dead in her home while baking biscuits for the soldiers. She was the only civilian casualty of the battle.
Mary Virginia “Jennie” Wade. National Park Service. Public domain.
George and Elizabeth Spangler had a thriving farm near the battlefield. Their farm was transformed into a crisis center when the Union Army took the property for a field hospital. Surgeons treated an estimated 1,800 soldiers there, both Union and Confederate, including Confederate General Lewis Armistead who helped lead the last major attack on the third day of the battle, famously known as “Pickett’s Charge.” Conditions were gruesome. One soldier recalled, “…hundreds have had limbs amputated, the barn more resembled a butcher shop than any other institution.”
George Spangler family and farm buildings circa 1890. Public domain.
Yet, compassion replaced conflict. Rebecca Price, a volunteer nurse from the Union Army who was stationed at Spangler said, “Those who wore gray were cared for with our own boys in blue, as they lay side by side in the same tents.”
A Civil War nurse attending to two injured soldiers. U.S. Army Center of Military History. Public domain.
Quaker nurses streamed in from adjoining towns to care for the wounded. Lydia Hamilton Smith–who had an African mother and Irish father–took a wagon into the countryside each day to gather supplies to help restock the town of Gettysburg.
Gettysburg citizens were given the unthinkable task of burying the dead.
Elizabeth Thorn took matters into her own hands by helping bury over 100 men while she was six-months pregnant, which is why there is a monument to a pregnant woman at Gettysburg.
Gettysburg resident and attorney David Wills was designated by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain to organize the proper burial of Pennsylvania’s dead. Wills hosted a meeting of fellow state agents in his home, which sparked the idea of a Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Governor Curtain authorized Wills to purchase 17 acres of land on Cemetery Hill, engaging landscape architect William Saunders to design the now-famous cemetery.
Wills felt it was critical to appropriately consecrate the cemetery and issued invitations to dignitaries, including President Abraham Lincoln. Wills wrote: “It is desired that, after the Oration (given by Edward Everett), you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”
Basil Biggs was a free black man living in Gettysburg at the time of the battle. A veterinarian by trade, he and his family fled during the fighting out of fear that if captured they would be sent south into slavery. He had special reason to worry because he was reportedly a conductor on the Underground Railroad, which spirited enslaved African-Americans to freedom. Ironically, his farm became a Confederate field hospital.
The Biggs family returned to Gettysburg immediately following the fighting and Basil was commissioned to lead a crew of free blacks to disinter the Union dead and rebury them in the newly created Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
Mr. Biggs and his crew literally laid the ground on which Lincoln delivered the words that called for “a new birth of freedom.”
Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks,” now famously known as the Gettysburg Address, are remarkable. Not only for his use of rhetoric, but also for the tone. He doesn’t speak of the progress of the war, nor gloat about the Union victory at Gettysburg; instead, Lincoln speaks with humility about sacrifice, healing, remembering, and what it means to fight for a more inclusive democracy.
Crowd of citizens, soldiers, and etc. with Lincoln at Gettysburg, by Mathew Brady. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain.
His address was a welcome juxtaposition to the angry divisiveness of the war.
Along with the citizens of Gettysburg, Lincoln started down a path to civility and healing that many have walked for the last 155 years.
Veterans from both sides of the battle returned to Gettysburg in 1913 to honor the fallen, reminisce with their friends, and extend their hands to their former enemies over fences where they once fired.
The Eternal Light Peace Memorial was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, at the 75th battle reunion, with the inscription: “Peace Eternal in a Nation United.” Its flame was lit by two 91-year-old Union and Confederate veterans and served as the inspiration for the eternal flame that burns at the grave of President John Kennedy.
Eternal Light Peace Memorial in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, USA. Public domain.
The Eternal Light’s flame still burns brightly on the grounds, serving as a stark reminder that Americans are so much better off when united, when conciliation triumphs over conflict, inclusion over division.
Today, we must continue to reflect on the enduring relevancy of Lincoln’s stirring, closing words in the Gettysburg Address: “…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.”
About the author: Matthew C. Moen, PhD, is president of The Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit, philanthropic, educational organization operating in partnership with the National Park Service to preserve Gettysburg National Military Park and the Eisenhower National Historic Site and to educate the public about their significance. He has undertaken an innovative strategic plan that expands the Foundation’s educational scope beyond the battle of Gettysburg to include a 155-year-old narrative of healing, kindness, civility, and inclusion—exemplified by President Lincoln’s famous address.
Moen is author of six books and dozens of articles about the American democratic experiment, and has served as professor of political science, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and Lohre Distinguished Professor at the University of South Dakota.
Cover image: The Second Corps Hospital at Rock Creek, by Frederick Gutekunst circa 1863. National Park Service. Public domain.