Our Views: The high cost of liberty

In Pennsylvania, 150 years ago, a Southern general heard that there was a stock of shoes in a small town just up the road from where his very footsore troops were resting. Not an oasis in the desert could be more appealing to the invaders of the Northern states in Robert E. Lee’s army.

So the Southerners set off to seize the shoes.

Two great armies were thus set on collision course. On July 3, 1863, after some of the fiercest fighting ever to occur in America, Lee’s army conceded its defeat to the Union forces commanded by Gen. George Meade.

The story of the shoes was not entirely true, as the Southerners were seeking all sorts of provisions, and there were in fact no shoes in Gettysburg. But the three-day battle that culminated in the slaughter of Pickett’s charge changed the course of history.

The battle of Gettysburg, and in the same month the surrender of besieged Vicksburg in Mississippi and Port Hudson in Louisiana, marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. The great river flowed “unvexed to the sea,” in a poetic phrase for the Yankees. Lee’s host was humbled, and was destined to fight thereafter on an increasingly hard-pressed defensive in Virginia.

In this sesquicentennial year of the great conflict, Americans look back on events of heroism and tragedy, and our national nightmare is the subject of commemoration and reflection.

President Abraham Lincoln spoke a few months later at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. His remarks were much shorter than that of the main orator and at first did not attract as much attention. But they have lived, and on this anniversary we believe they deserve special attention:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that 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.”