Thinking about “New Beginnings,” Braver Angels, and the multiple meanings of Gettysburg.

What is it about Gettysburg? Why does the place have such a grip on our culture and our sense of who we are? The idea of Gettysburg as a place symbolic of “new beginnings,” fights to the death, or turning points, seems fixed in the public imagination.

Consider these disparate examples:

In the midst of a high-stakes international negotiation in September 1978, three world leaders — U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — took a break from their work at Camp David to come to Gettysburg. The military generals attending the meeting – from all sides – were thrilled to finally see the place they studied so intensely in military academy. And when they came to the cemetery, one civilian leader in the group recited the Gettysburg Address from memory.

The Hollywood film “Remember the Titans” portrays the challenges of integrating a high school football team and includes an emotional speech about racial strife and togetherness at Gettysburg from Coach Boone: “Men died right here on this field, fightin’ the same fight that we’re still fightin’ amongst ourselves…today…. If we don’t come together… right now, on this hallowed ground… then we, too, will be destroyed. Just like they were,” he said.

In 2020, Presidential candidate Joe Biden came to Gettysburg for a major policy address on what divides us. “There’s no more fitting place than here today in Gettysburg, to talk about the cost of division. About how much it has cost America in the past, about how much it is costing us now, and about why I believe in this moment, we must come together as a nation. For President Lincoln, the Civil War was about the greatest of causes. The end of slavery, widening equality, pursuit of justice, the creation of opportunity, and the sanctity of freedom,” said Biden

Gettysburg is a special place to many different people for many different reasons including the universal, “must-see Civil War place” and, arguably, the universal “US History” place. A shrine to sacrifice and valor, to unity, to reconciliation, to the Lost Cause, to “a new birth of freedom” and “government of the People, by the People, for the People.” And, increasingly, to “new beginnings.”

Another bold symbolic statement came this summer, when Braver Angels, a national organization created to foster bipartisan communication, came to Gettysburg “to give birth to a national civic renewal movement bringing together conservatives and progressives on equal terms to clarify differences, find common ground where it exists, and work together to save our country.”

Approximately 500 attendees – and the Braver Angels staff – left this place energized and inspired.

Just like Coach Boone in “Remember the Titans” and Presidential candidate Biden, so too was a statement from Braver Angels — “This July, on the grounds of the great battlefield of our Civil War, we gather to prevent another one,” focused on reconciliation.

The complicated story of Gettysburg was also brought into focus recently for me when I had the privilege of touring the battlefield with Peter Carmichael, head of Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute. Perhaps better than any other guide I’ve encountered, Carmichael captured the multiple layers of meaning this place holds.

Carmichael crammed all the “valor and adventure” anyone could hope for into the tour: Fighting on the first day, Rose Farm, Pickett’s Charge, and an excursion on local writer William A. Frassanito and his identification of the “Rose Farm unburied dead” photos and the “Devil’s Den fake sniper” photo.

He also gave a nod to Lincoln’s speech, the reinvention of the purpose of the nation (“new birth of freedom … of the People, by the People, for the People”) and of the cause that the soldiers “so nobly advanced.”

But the masterwork of this tour was the way Carmichael reminded us that the battle and the war were also about the defense by one side of a brutal and dehumanizing institution and the other side’s fight for national redemption. Yes, the Confederates fought bravely, but they fought to defend a horrible institution. Yes, Reconciliation was a good thing, but it’s also true that we abandoned the Freedmen in the process.

While I was ruminating about this subject, I found another masterful quote from Gettysburg that illustrates our complex story, this one quote from Gettysburg College’s Dean of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Programs and Africana Studies Professor Jennifer Bloomquist during a recent campus “First Year Walk “

“Like the country then, you are now at a turning point yourselves,” Bloomquist said. “It isn’t where you begin your journey but where you finish it that’s important.”

Bloomquist used a quote about Lincoln from 20th-century activist and author W.E.B. DuBois to illustrate what she meant:

[DuBois said] “Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century… I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet triumphed.  The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: ‘See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.’”

The Gettysburg National Military Park is also recognizing additional layers to the story of the battle and reconciliation with new informational, site specific interpretations (called “waysides”) being installed around the park.

A new wayside at the site of Iverson’s attack points out that sometimes all the valor in the world is pointless.

Three new waysides consider African-American farmers — Basil Biggs, Abraham Bryan, and James Warfield — who fled for their lives during the battle and returned to find their property for the most part destroyed.

New waysides near the North Carolina monument note that the 1963 celebration of “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here” left important elements out of the story.

New waysides at the Warfield House acknowledge that the kindly Confederate soldiers who issued a supposed “no looting” order also kidnapped hundreds of African Americans and took them south to be enslaved.

It’s a complicated story that used to be told in a simple way. Yes, Jefferson wrote some of the most enlightened critiques of slavery … and was a slaveowner to the day he died. Yes, the Declaration contains lofty words reassuring us that “all men are created equal” – words that applied to almost nobody at the time they were written. Yes, America is the land of the Statue of Liberty and “bring me your huddled masses” – and the land of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Internment camps … and, belatedly, national apology. It is also the land of massive resistance and of (until recently) affirmative action.

Nowhere encapsulates these complications more than Gettysburg. That’s why I love this place.

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Leon Reed, freelance reporter, is a former US Senate staff member, defense consultant, and history teacher. He is a seven year resident of Gettysburg, where he writes military history and explores the park and the Adams County countryside. He is the publisher at Little Falls Books, chaired the Adams County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee and is on the board of SCCAP and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He and his wife, Lois, have 3 children, 3 cats, and 5 grandchildren.


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Fran K. Ingram
Fran K. Ingram
9 months ago

What is a genocidal statement?
This is one of Lincoln’s top military leaders, General William Tecumseh Sherman.
When asked about peace, he said:
“There is a certain class of people in the South, men, women and children, who must be killed or banished before we can hope for peace and order.”
Maybe this can help to explain why Hitler was such a great admirer of the 16th US President.

Fran K. Ingram
Fran K. Ingram
9 months ago
Reply to  Leon Reed

Why did Lincoln ask General Lee to lead the Northern troops if the war was to free slaves? Wasn’t Lee a slave owner? Did Virginia pass laws forbidding more slaves to its state, before the Northern states? Was it Liberia where one of the underground railroads ended for many slaves freed from the North and the South? Did Lincoln support Liberia? Did Lincoln have plans for the freed slaves to settle in the North? Did the North want the freed slaves from the South when they were not friendly to the ones they already had. Some freed slaves stayed in… Read more »

Fran K. Ingram
Fran K. Ingram
9 months ago
Reply to  Leon Reed

Thanks for admitting what I presented were facts. Using the descriptive word ‘irrelevant’ with facts indicates that the author determined what he personally deemed to be supporting his agenda and wants to ignore the other facts. Gettysburg is more than a battlefield; it is a town that makes its income on a battlefield. Eliminate the Confederate voice of the Civil War, and watch the visitors drop. Thank you again for a civil debate on a divisive issue. We need more dialogues, not just monologues that are enslaving us all.