This year, American Independence Day on the Fourth of July immediately followed the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. That enormous death struggle at a small Pennsylvania town occurred July 1 through July 3, 1863. Afterward, the Confederacy was never again to mount major offensive operations.
Gettysburg was the turning point of our long, bloody Civil War. The battle and wider context represent fundamental durable lessons of war – and politics, with important lessons for us.
At the end of the battle, Union commander Gen. George Gordon Meade permitted the Confederate forces of Gen. Robert E. Lee to retreat to Virginia and safety, much to the consternation of President Abraham Lincoln, who constantly pressed commanders.
In fairness, however, both armies were exhausted. Even a gifted leader, in the relative physical safety of Washington, could underestimate the complete emotional as well as physical exhaustion resulting from military combat.
Lincoln’s brief Gettysburg Address, commemorating the battlefield cemetery, emphasized essential human equality as well as strong national unity. The vision of the speech was made actual through Union victory in the war, which in turn reflected Lincoln’s genius for leadership.
First, the gifted politician was able both to gauge and guide public opinion, simultaneously building an ultimately successful Northern coalition to preserve the Union while also building the much more tenuous coalition of sentiment against slavery.
At the start of the war, Lincoln patiently resisted pressures of pro-Union hotheads and skillfully maneuvered the South into firing the first shots, against a ship with provisions for the island outpost of Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Pro-Union sentiment was strengthened.
In January 1863, he raised the stakes of the conflict from simply preserving the Union to ending the curse of slavery. The limited Union victory at Antietam in September 1862, after continuing defeats and reversals, provided credibility essential to effectiveness of his Emancipation Proclamation.
However, the dramatic declaration ended slavery only in the Confederate states Washington did not control. Slavery was not touched in Northern states, including the vital border states where pro-slavery Southern sentiments were strong.
In the last year of the war, and of his life, Lincoln was able to abolish slavery universally through the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He rightly saw that once the Confederacy was defeated, much anti-slavery sentiment in the North would dissipate. The recent film "Lincoln" provides a reasonably accurate portrayal of the tremendous effort, including at times unsavory political horse trading, required to achieve this result.
Second, Lincoln evolved into an insightful military strategist. The Civil War was the first modern total war, and the president grasped early that economics was as vital as armed forces.
The agrarian South lacked the industrial base necessary to sustain this type of war. The Union naval blockade was put in place quickly along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Lincoln also emphasized gaining control of the major rivers.
Simultaneously with the Gettysburg victory, Gen. Ulysses Grant captured the strategically vital city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. The long-term siege of the Confederate garrison involved complex engineering, and patience. Lincoln promoted him to command of all Union armies for what proved the final offensive against the South.
Third, Lincoln was a brilliant writer and speaker, but the rightly celebrated Gettysburg Address must be understood as one visible tip of enormous underlying continuous effort. A political leader who relies on rhetoric alone is bound to fail.