In his famous Gettysburg Address, delivered at the dedication of a cemetery for the fallen Union soldiers of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln eloquently said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
We must not forget. The men who fought and died at Gettysburg—a battle that started on this day, July 1—saved the Union and helped guarantee the end of slavery, and to them we owe an eternal debt of gratitude. But while a detailed examination of the battle itself is a very valuable study, I wish to focus more on the larger significance and backdrop of this historic Civil War battle.
Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation. Just before that, Confederate President Jefferson Davis issued a proclamation of his own, first introducing the official Confederate policy of treating white officers of black Union troops and their black soldiers as slaves instead of Prisoners-of-war (POWs). This was followed in May 1863 by The Retaliatory Act of the Confederate Congress.
Gettysburg was fought in the midst of this ideological battle over slavery. Indeed, the Confederate army had just devastated the black communities in parts of Pennsylvania leading up to the battle. Gettysburg, which had had a thriving free black community, was decimated. The white citizens of Greencastle, PA, rose up and saved a number of the Confederates’ black captives, but an unknown number of others were enslaved and many disappeared from history, never to be traced again. That is the hideous backdrop of the bloody Battle of Gettysburg. The Union soldiers won a victory not just for the Union but against slavery and for justice.
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