On July 1, 1863, soldiers from the Army of Northern Virginia had sufficient ammunition but not enough shoes. They headed toward a rumored supply of footwear in a small Pennsylvania crossroads village, Gettysburg.
One hundred fifty years ago this summer, the greatest battle ever fought on North American soil was started over sore feet. The armed struggle of brothers, fathers and sons, while it may have been triggered by the want of boots, was about greater matters.
President Abraham Lincoln maintained the Civil War was initially fought to preserve the United States. However, in the end and in the beginning it was about slavery. Had there been no slaves there would have been no reason to secede in the name of state’s rights. The argument for liberty for a state to depart from the Union was predicated on the absence of liberty for people bought and sold.
The states of the Confederacy broke away because their economic survival was dependent on slave labor. If you don’t pay someone for their work, the costs of production drop precipitously. It was the plantation owners, the “1 percent” of their day, who commanded the politics, the culture and the money. It was the wealthy privileged who shouted the loudest for maintaining the status quo. They had gained the most financially from free labor. They had the most to lose from free men and women. They also had the most to fear from the same people they controlled with guns, whips and the law.
We are four score and many years older as a nation. The question is: are we 150 years and hundreds of thousands of ghosts wiser?
One way to answer is to imagine what would have happened if on those three fateful days in July the left flank of the Union lines had not held at Little and Big Round Top. Think forward to the difference if Pickett’s Charge had breached the wall on Cemetery Ridge and ripped through the disintegrating blue ranks.
Envision for a minute that with the defeat at Gettysburg the North sued for peace. The rebels would be free to exploit their slaves without the interference of the industrial North and meddling abolitionists. The pious preachers of the South would continue to sermonize the superiority of the white race and the biblical justification for one race to rule over another.
Even with General Meade stopping the unbeatable Robert E. Lee, it still took the whole union more than 100 years to pass federal legislation overcoming the segregating and humiliating Jim Crow laws of the former Confederacy.
Would that mean, if left on their own, the 11 break-away states would still be separated by race and dollars? The march on Washington for civil rights and against poverty would have to be held as the march on Richmond. Apartheid could still be the economic imperative. Martin Luther King Jr. might still be locked up in the Birmingham Jail without a dream. The movie, "The Help," would not be staged in the ’60s, but portrayed as a contemporary film of the 21st century.
Would the North permit the downtrodden of the South to cross its borders?
The gap of the rich and the poor would be greater when the lowly have nothing, especially their freedom.
The fight at Gettysburg has not totally broken the chains of economic disparity and bigotry. Some still preach pecuniary inequality as fiscal gospel.
Gettysburg is more than a crossroads turned into a battlefield. It is a constant reminder of human dignity, equality and sacrifice
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Abraham Lincoln’s dedicatory address reminds the survivors in 1863 and 2013 that it is an ongoing test. Can any nation so conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal long endure? We are at a crossroads now, and some of us don’t have shoes.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.