(This essay was originally published in The Lincoln Forum Bulletin in the fall 2013.)
While the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was commemorated with fanfare within historical circles and at Gettysburg itself, the education world has shown stunningly little interest. Abe Lincoln, our most admired president, would be disappointed and would shudder at the implications for our country.
In probably the greatest land battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1-3, 1863. During these three days some 70,000 Confederate soldiers, led by General Robert E. Lee, engaged 90,000 Union forces, led by Major General George Gordon Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac for only three days. Lee had invaded the North with the hope, militarily, of scoring a decisive victory which, politically, might strengthen the Northern peace movement and force President Abraham Lincoln to negotiate for peace.
The battle witnessed uncommon valor and good and poor tactical decisions on both sides, culminating in the ill-fated Confederate assault led by Major General George Pickett. Of the 14,000 Southern troops who attacked that July 3, only about one-half returned. While the Union won a resounding victory, the human toll on both sides was very costly: 23,000 Union casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) and 28,000 Confederate casualties, more than a third of the Confederate force.
Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would fight and win many other battles after Gettysburg; however, their former dominance in tactics and initiative was now matched by experienced Union forces, soon to be led by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.
Many Americans who have heard of this battle may not know of its magnitude and significance. Many perhaps make facile assumptions about the inevitability of the North’s victory in the Civil War, similar to the common view of World War II—we all know the conclusion and casually assume the Allied victory was inevitable.
Not so. The Battle of Gettysburg could have gone either way, and with it the Civil War. If Lee had prevailed over Meade, there was no guarantee that the North’s superiority in manpower, finances, and industry along with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would win the war. If the Confederacy succeeded in stifling the North sufficiently so that public opinion shifted dramatically, we would have become two separate nations. Lincoln’s greatest nightmare would have come true: that self-government was a chimera.
To be sure, America remembered the battle. This past year Hollywood has given us Spielberg’s Lincoln; although, this was focused on Lincoln and the abolishment of slavery. Also, Copperhead, a movie about the peace movement in the North, opened in late June. The Postal Service has given us some marvelous stamps featuring the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Vicksburg. At Gettysburg itself, thousands of re-enactors gathered the first week in July to relive and commemorate the battle.
Given the magnitude and significance of the battle, it is surprising that major media in the world of primary and secondary education have essentially ignored it. During this past year the weekly newspaper Education Week, self-described as “American Education’s [K-12] Newspaper of Record,” has had no articles on the Battle or even the Civil War, focusing on such things as the implementation of the Common Core standards, assessment of students, and teacher education and evaluation. Likewise, Independent School, the quarterly magazine for independent schools, has also ignored this pivotal battle and our Civil War, focusing on such themes as technology, experiential learning, safety and security in schools, and accomplishing school missions in an era of fiscal restraints. Even the PBS Catalog for June features neither the Battle nor the War. Its cover emphasizes “Constitution USA” and its rear cover features British dramas.
The implications of this neglect are serious. Societies and civilizations require glue to bind and sustain them, and one important source of this binding is significant historical events, such as the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the so-called “high water mark of the Confederacy.” It was, along with Vicksburg, the pivotal battle of the Civil War, the war which forged a new identity for our country. It eliminated the Southern way of life based on slavery. We were no longer a “house divided.” Before the war it was common to say “the United States are;” afterward, it became “the United States is.”
With the former prominence of Columbus Day now diminished, and Thanksgiving now overtaken by a commercialism which whisks us from Halloween almost directly to Christmas, the remembrance of such key events becomes even more important.
Secondly, the education world’s neglect of Gettysburg may signal a marked complacency about the health and longevity of our country. One of the great insights Lincoln gives us is his reminder of the contingent nature of our democratic system, a system which needs tending by its people for its survival. In May, 1861, Lincoln stated: “the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity … of proving that popular government is not an absurdity.”
With the rise of China and The Rest, America is again faced with maintaining its interests in a changing and challenging world. Lincoln also gives us insight into our greatest challenge: “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Fred Zilian is an educator at Portsmouth Abbey School and Salve Regina University, RI. For fifteen years he has been an Abraham Lincoln presenter/interpreter. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.