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Union Army and Confederate Army cavalry units clash in the re-enactment of 139th anniversary of the Battle of Gettsyburg, Sunday, July 7, 2002, in Gettysburg, Pa.

BRAD C. BOWER/The Associated Press

Some nations have been created by paper, some by protest. But many of them have found their sense of national identity on battlefields. Passchendaele was a crucial event in the turbulent development of a Canadian nationality, just as Gallipoli was for Australia and New Zealand.

For Americans, the defining battle was the one at Gettysburg, whose 150th anniversary is this week. Over a million visitors have been predicted for Gettysburg over the course of 2013; for the July anniversary days, no hotel accommodations have been available within 95 kilometres of town since January.

There have been other big-ticket anniversaries during the larger Civil War sesquicentennial – the First Battle of Bull Run in 2011 and Antietam in 2012 – but Gettysburg is undoubtedly the biggest of them all. Not only was the battle a critical moment in the agonizing struggle of the Civil War (1861-65) to abolish slavery and solidify the union, it became a platform on which the wartime president, Abraham Lincoln, uttered his own eloquent definition of American nationhood.

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In sheer size, Gettysburg dwarfed any previous military event on the continent. The principal field army of the insurgent Confederate republic, commanded by the venerable Robert E. Lee, had won victory after embarrassing victory against the national U.S. forces. In the summer of 1863, Lee's Confederates were looking to achieve a battlefield win that would force the U.S. administration of Abraham Lincoln to the negotiating table.

The Confederacy had too little resources and manpower to survive a protracted war, especially if it was all fought on Southern soil. Its armies, Lee knew, would have to move the fighting into the northern states, in hopes of raising war-weariness to the point that northerners would demand a halt – which he believed would allow the Confederacy to secure the concession of its independence.

Of course, that independence might not mean very much. The southern economy depended on the export of cotton to industrial Britain, and that might have made the Confederacy little more than an economic protectorate of the British Empire.

Nevertheless, Lee would fling 85,000 soldiers (plus the army's 30,000 slaves) into Pennsylvania. Through the month of June, 1863, they swept northwards. The aim was to lure the U.S. army – 95,000 strong, under George Gordon Meade – into a trap. But Lee's plans were confounded when advance Union forces reached Gettysburg first, and thus forced a stand-up fight instead of an ambush.

Over three days – July 1 to July 3 – the two armies would nearly batter each other senseless and turn Gettysburg into a city of carnage. Up to 9,000 soldiers would be killed outright or die on the battlefield. (Compare this to the 5,000 Canadian dead at Passchendaele.)

Battles-within-the-battle erupted over innocuous hills like Little Round Top, and across parcels of farmland known only as the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard or the Stony Ridge.

Civilians found their backyards and alleys converted into ambushes, their attics turned to sniper posts and their streets barricaded.

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The most valuable piece of military real estate, however, was a broad plateau at the south end of town known as Cemetery Hill (the cemetery's Gothic-style gatehouse became one of the most iconic images of the battle). There, the Union army parked gunners who could sweep the entire surrounding landscape.

By the third day, Lee decided to launch an all-or-nothing attack, looking to kick in the back door to Cemetery Hill.

This was not quite as suicidal a decision as has often been portrayed. The weapons technology of the mid-19th century was only a marginal improvement over that of the Napoleonic wars, and in the Crimean War, Lord Raglan had launched exactly such an attack against the Russians at the battle of the Alma and won a clear-cut victory.

At around 2 p.m. on July 3, as many as 14,000 Confederate soldiers stepped off in long lines of battle. An admiring U.S. officer wrote, "The guns and bayonets in the sunlight shone like silver." But the great charge failed, leaving 500 dead and another 2,100 wounded or captured.

Meade's army may have been bloodied, but it also had the determination of despair: Union soldiers understood all too well that if they failed, "the rebel chieftain" would be "at liberty to go where and do what he pleased," another officer wrote. It would have been the cue for "mob rule over the whole chain of Atlantic cities … and thus paralyzed the whole machinery of our government."

In the end, the Confederates simply could not overrun the stubbornness of the defenders. The next day, the blistered Confederate army began a slow retreat southward, a retreat that would continue until at last the Confederacy crumbled.

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America's destiny – and Canada's, too

The soldiers at Gettysburg sensed that they had been part of something momentous even before the firing stopped. One of the U.S. officers wrote that the victory over the Confederates was "greater than that of Waterloo."

It was not just a U.S. victory, either. Among other foreign nationals, more than 100 Canadians fought at Gettysburg, and they, too, hoped to glimpse the future through the Civil War's battle smoke. Many were Irish recruits to the Union army who looked on their service as training for an invasion of Canada and the overthrow of English rule; many of them would be part of the ill-fated Fenian Raid of 1866.

Other Canadians, including Sir John A. Macdonald, used the Union triumph as evidence that the British Empire should waste no more time using Canada as a forward operating base against the American republic. The U.S. would have to be recognized as an English-speaking partner whose continuity Britain had to accept – a recognition that ultimately would set Canada free to plot its own future as a federal Dominion in 1867.

But the most immediate significance would be for Americans, and no one summed that up more eloquently than Abraham Lincoln, in what became known as his Gettysburg Address (although Lincoln never actually used that as a title).

In the weeks after the battle, one of the most urgent tasks was the burial of the dead. Within a month, a plan emerged for the creation of a national cemetery at Gettysburg, and in November of 1863 Lincoln was invited to deliver a dedication for it.

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Surprisingly, Lincoln was not the primary speaker at the ceremonies. The principal oration was delivered by former Massachusetts governor and senator Edward Everett, who spoke for 2 1/2 hours. Lincoln delivered his dedication in just 2 1/2 minutes. But Lincoln's 272 words captured popular attention then, and have ever since.

The American republic, he said, had been founded on the proposition in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." The Civil War – and the battle of Gettysburg – had been a gigantic test to see whether founding a nation on a "proposition" of that sort was really possible. The proof that it was, Lincoln added, was in the cemetery itself, in the lives of the 3,900 soldiers buried there, who had fought to preserve the idea of "government of the people, by the people, for the people."

The challenge lay not in dedicating a cemetery, but in whether the American people would dedicate themselves "to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion," and experience, in almost religious terms, a "new birth of freedom."

In an era of monarchs, democracy's moment of glory

One hundred and fifty years after the event, Canadians may be tempted to read the Gettysburg Address as a little more than another proclamation of American triumphalism. American democracy is, after all, not the only worthwhile form of democracy, and there have been more than a few occasions when such lofty idealism has served American politicians as a cloak for far-less-exalted motives.

But from the perspective of 1863, the U.S. really was the only large-scale, free-standing democracy in the world. Across Europe, the forces of monarchical reaction had risen to regain control of the thrones they had lost in the revolutions of 1789, 1825 and 1848.

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Britain's Parliament was still top-heavy with aristocrats and privilege, and Canada would not have its own Parliament until 1867. (When it did, it arguably would take another lesson from the U.S. Civil War in ensuring the power of the federal government over that of the provinces.)

In that sense, Lincoln really was speaking over the heads of an American audience to every liberal-democratic heart, pleading the cause of popular government and fixing on the American example of 1776 because, in truth, it was the only democratic example to which he could appeal.

But Lincoln's primary message was for Americans: It spoke of this battle as the proof that democracies were not doomed to self-destruction, to faceless bourgeois boredom or to nerveless appeasement. What Americans began to build in 1776 received its capstone at Gettysburg, and a nation's identity had been, at last, unalterably confirmed.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. LuceProfessor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and the author of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Knopf).

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