Robert E. Lee and his army were soaked through when they marched south on the morning of July 4, 1863.
The blood and sweat poured out over the past three days had been for naught. And the gloom of the Army of Northern Virginia matched the gloom of the weather.
Lee had marched his more than 70,000 men into the Pennsylvania countryside on June 30. His plan was to threaten Washington D.C. from the lightly defended north in hopes of forcing a peace settlement with Abraham Lincoln’s government.
But on July 1, a portion of Lee’s army stumbled into a scrape with a portion of George Meade’s Army of the Potomac on the outskirts of the hamlet of Gettysburg. Lee’s army came to Gettysburg to “requisition” shoes from the factory there, not to fight a battle. But the battle that ensued over the next three days would prove to be the bloodiest on American soil.
The first of July at Gettysburg wasn’t the time or place of Lee’s choosing to engage the google-eyed Meade. But once engaged, and once his blood was up, Bobby Lee was a like a bulldog—he latched on and would’t let go. Gettysburg would be the place and July 1 would be the time the Confederacy either established itself as an independent nation or ended its rebel experiment.
We know the outcome of the battle—Meade was victorious and Lee was defeated. When Robert E. Lee and his vanquished men marched away from the 50,000 Confederate and Union dead, wounded, and missing at Gettysburg, he took the hopes that the Confederate States of America would ever be independent with him. The experiment didn’t die suddenly—the war would rage on for two more years—but the Confederacy had suddenly become the Lost Cause.
On the morning of Lee’s retreat back to Virginia, the Executive Mansion, as it was called then, put out, what was in effect, a press release.
Washington City, July 4, 10. A.M., 1863
The President announces to the country that news from the Army of the Potomac, up to 10 P.M. of the 3rd. is such as to cover that Army with the highest honor, to promise a great success to the cause of the Union, and to claim the condolence of all for the many gallant fallen. And that for this, he especially desires that on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude.
Eleven days later, on July 15, 1863, President Lincoln signed a proclamation of thanksgiving in which he thanked “Almighty God” for answering the “prayers of an afflicted people” for the victories at Vicksburg in the west and Gettysburg in the east—victories which “augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored.” Yet, these victories came at the high price of “life, limb, health and liberty incurred by brave, loyal and patriotic citizens.”
Lincoln, therefore, called upon the nation to set aside a day for “National Thanksgiving, Praise and Prayer,” to
render the homage due to the Divine Majesty, for the wonderful things he has done in the Nation’s behalf, and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger, which has produced, and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion, to change the hearts of the insurgents, to guide the counsels of the Government with wisdom adequate to so great a national emergency, and to visit with tender care and consolation throughout the length and breadth of our land all those who, through the vicissitudes of marches, voyages, battles and sieges, have been brought to suffer in mind, body or estate, and finally to lead the whole nation, through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine Will, back to the perfect enjoyment of Union and fraternal peace.
Preservation of the Union came at a knee-buckling cost. At war’s end some 625,000 men lay buried in American soil. Thank God the war ended. But what was begun 237 years ago when fifty-six men dipped quills in ink, and what was fought for 150 years ago when thousands of men dipped swords in blood is never ended. So, on this Independence Day, let us, prayerfully, dedicate ourselves anew, in the famous words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “to the great task remaining before us . . . 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.”