The beginning of July 1863 was a peculiar American moment — a time when the destiny of a continent began to be clarified — but it was not an inevitable moment. In his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, Lincoln would note that soldiers and sympathizers of both sides “read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Union forces may have come to believe that they moved with God’s gusts at their back, but before Gettysburg the resolution of the war was anything but certain.
Antietam lit the way, and with a Union victory at a creek there the previous September, Lincoln felt sufficient confidence to contemplate his Emancipation Proclamation. But Gettysburg may be the better dividing line, and 1863, like 1963 a century later, might be the better benchmark to see a world transformed.
The year 1863 marked the passing of some of the symbolic figures of the old era. Besides Stonewall Jackson, who had died at Chancellorsville two months before the fighting at Gettysburg, these figures — giants of a world that itself was perishing — left this Earth: Sam Houston, Eugene Delacroix, William Makepeace Thackeray.
By the dim and flaring lamps of 150 years of perspective we now see that Gettysburg split the Civil War into two parts: before and after, much like the war split the country in two, setting state against state and sometimes brother against brother.
The year 1863 also stands as a dividing line between two eras, both in the New World and in the Old. It was the year when ground was broken on the transcontinental railroad and when Jules Verne published “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” both pointing to a future when engineering and scientific exploration would shape the world.
In that year, six men who would play major roles in the decades to come were born: Franz Ferdinand and David Lloyd George, one whose assassination at Sarajevo would start World War I, the other whose work at Versailles would end World War I; William Randolph Hearst, who would boast of starting another war and who would personify the growth of big media; Henry Ford, who would make the world mobile with his Model T but render workers immobile with his assembly line; Edvard Munch, whose scream against modernity would resonate even in our own time; and Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux holy man and visionary who would change our own view of the conquest of the continent his people once dominated.