Gettysburg 150 Years Later

Gettysburg, 150 Years Later

by Lew Rosenbaum

This is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

July 1-3, 1863, Confederate General Robert E Lee attacked the Union army in his second attempt to invade the North.  Many consider this, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, its turning point.  After three days of bitter fighting, Lee was forced to retreat South.  More than 50,000 soldiers died as a result of the battle.  In November, at the memorial service on the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, Lincoln delivered his well-known address.

The concise, 10 sentence speech by Lincoln took place 11 months after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.  When Lincoln spoke of the founding fathers bringing forth “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,”  he was speaking in the context of the Civil War.  He was, in a sense, addressing the unfinished business of a flawed Constitution.  In his few words, he summarized the meaning of the battle, and the war,  “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom .“ It was a new birth of freedom that was to be betrayed 14 years later, with the end of Reconstruction.

The Battle of Gettysburg was commemorated thereafter, for many years, as an epic moment in the fight for the “Lost Cause,” the way the South elevated their defeat to a kind of heroic myth.  Democrat Woodrow Wilson was the first president to speak at a major national commemoration of the battle’s anniversary in 1913, the 50th anniversary. His speech, again in the context of the times, reflected the political victory of the South following Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and at the same time the subordination of the South to Wall Street. Wilson did not mention slavery or emancipation at all in his speech, nor did he allude to the special place of the battle in defeating the South. He referred to the men both in blue and gray who had given their lives, and that the United States emerged a single country at the end of the war. No hard feelings. In W.E.B. DuBois’ famous dictum: “Wall Street controls the South and the South controls the nation.”

For the 75th anniversary in 1938, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt commemorated the battle.  His remarks paralleled Wilson’s speech.  He also spoke of the honor of blue and gray, without any mention of slavery, emancipation, or the condition of Blacks in his own time (At the beginning of his first term, the case of the eight “Scottsboro Boys,” falsely accused in Alabama of rape, was a celebrated cause).  Through all the years, from the Civil War to Roosevelt’s time, the heart of the Democrat Party was in the South and based in Southern politics.  It had been the split in the Democrats that was fundamental to Lincoln’s Republican victory in the presidential election in 1860.  Fissures were beginning to appear in the Democrats, though, as the labor and other social legislation Roosevelt championed reorganized the traditional power base of Democrats and oriented them more toward Northern cities and financial and industrial centers.

Twenty-five years later, Southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson explicitly paid tribute to the unfinished struggle of Blacks for freedom.  Speaking at a Memorial Day commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg, a date that was still a month away, Johnson said: “One hundred years ago, the slave was freed, One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.” Johnson here foreshadowed the civil rights legislation that would be a hallmark of his administration.

Here was an individual recognizing the march of history and choosing to march with it;  recognizing that the Democrat Party he represented could not return to the base it once held in the South while building a base in the factories and cities of the North.  In capitalism’s fight to compete globally, it had to present a different face to those countries emerging from European direct colonialism, a face that would project that a benign neocolonial relationship with the United States was possible.

This is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and July 4 is the date, also in 1863, when Grant took Vicksburg.  The road from Gettysburg and Vicksburg to Appomattox was a grinding one but inexorable.  We are clearly not living in a post-racial society, any more than we were in 1963.  Witness the ruling against Johnson’s Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court. The march of technology, which has displaced so many from the secure jobs of 50 years ago, has hurt African-American and Latino workers disproportionately.

If we are to take one lesson from the tortuous road from Appomattox to today, however, we should learn that poverty is widespread among all ethnicities; and that the state is launching an attack on all poor people, using the historic racial divisions to accomplish this.    In 1861 Lincoln was able to say,  “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.” Today we are able to take that concept much farther.

As Gettysburg was the turning point in the war to end slavery, we should organize ourselves, not simply for the repeal of this or that assault against us, but for the turning point in the battles to end all exploitation.


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