It was in May 150 years ago that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee made the fateful decision to invade the north with the Army of Northern Virginia.
He aimed to capture or at least threaten Washington and force President Abraham Lincoln to sue for peace and recognize the Confederacy.
Lee’s decision led to the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg. Over three days, from July 1 to 3, 1863, more than 50,000 men fell on those Pennsylvania fields and hillsides, more than in Korea or Iraq or Afghanistan and almost as many as in Vietnam.
The bloody battle forced Lee to retreat to Virginia, beginning the inevitable trek to Appomattox and surrender.
Today, as we observe Memorial Day and honor all those men and women who gave their lives in service to their country in all our nation’s wars, we pay special tribute to those whose sacrifice at Gettysburg 150 years ago preserved the Union and our freedom.
Gettysburg is inextricably entwined with Memorial Day. The day was originally called Decoration Day, as the day when survivors of the Civil War dead decorated their graves with flags, flowers and other tokens.
In November 1863, Lincoln spoke the words that made immortal the sacrifice of those who fell at Gettysburg five months earlier and made clear why we observe a memorial day.
Lincoln’s words still resonate because they are not only a tribute to the fallen but also a stern reminder to “us the living” of the debt we owe to them and our obligation to dedicate ourselves to defending the cause for which they fought and died, our nation’s freedom.
We reprint Lincoln’s address here this Memorial Day in honor of the dead of Gettysburg and of all our fallen warriors and as a reminder of our responsibility to them.
“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.”