John Reeves is the author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
A large man, wearing a Confederate uniform and carrying a Rebel flag, walked across a wide open field toward a group of twenty or so eighth graders, who were standing on higher ground. A tour guide from Gettysburg National Park — let’s call him Stan — lectured the kids about “duty” and “honor” and other values that were displayed by both armies during Pickett’s Charge on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. Then, seeing the young Rebel getting closer, Stan informed the kids they were about to learn a valuable lesson.
The eighth graders began laughing and shouting. Some of them shrieked as if the man in the Confederate outfit was somehow dangerous. Others loudly asked Stan all at once what was about to happen. Mostly, they were just kids being kids. They sensed this was all some sort of show, and they were happy to play along with gusto.
“That’s it, everyone. Back in the bus! You just missed out on a valuable lesson,” Stan said. He felt the students were being disrespectful to him. He wouldn’t allow them to talk to the man in the Confederate uniform after all.
Moments later, Stan said that the young Rebel was a descendant of a Confederate soldier from Mississippi, who died on the field during Pickett’s Charge. Stan told the kids, as we rode on toward the Gettysburg Cemetery, that the deceased Confederate soldier was a brave hero, who was also now a great American. “Everyone who risked their lives at Gettysburg was an American hero,” said Stan.
This was the valuable lesson Stan had hoped the reenactor would be able to convey to the eighth graders. It is a perfectly good lesson. But it’s not the most important lesson for eighth graders who visit Gettysburg.
In a Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery — the site of Robert E. Lee’s former home — Frederick Douglass noted that we are often asked to remember “with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.” Douglass then added,
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen…But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the Republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a byword and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.
Douglass wisely identified what the eighth graders needed to learn most of all about the Battle of Gettysburg. A Union defeat would have placed an unbearable stress on the Lincoln administration and the Army of the Potomac, which may have ultimately resulted in a negotiated peace of some sort. Such a peace would have left slavery in place in the Confederate States of America.
Eighth graders who visit Gettysburg National Park must always remember the Union soldiers who risked their lives to preserve the Republic and end slavery. Men like John Reynolds, John Buford, Winfield Scott Hancock, Gouverneur Warren, Joshua Chamberlain, George Meade, and many other brave Union men.
During the Battle of Gettysburg, Union soldiers, from the lowliest privates to the most esteemed corps commanders, were fighting for different reasons. Some fought for the flag they loved. Others felt a strong obligation to serve their country. Perhaps a smaller number wanted to abolish slavery.
Regardless of their personal motivations, the Union men’s sacrifice at Gettysburg transformed the war into a struggle to abolish slavery. In his “Gettysburg Address,” Abraham Lincoln said, “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.” Eighth graders should be very grateful for the brave men, who risked their lives during those three days in July 1863, so that “the nation might live” and undergo “a new birth of freedom.”