In the searing afternoon sun of July 3, 1863, Federal troops turned back Pickett’s final, desperate assault on the center of Union lines at Gettysburg. The smoke of the cannons blotted out the sun, turning it into an eerie red ball hanging in the summer sky; the thunder of shot and shell, canister and exploding ordinance joined in incessant, deadly chorus with the crashing fire of muskets and rifles: souls streamed toward heaven’s door from battlefield destruction never seen before. Researchers say that the roar of the cannons that day was the loudest human-made sound until the atomic bomb.
Waves of shot and shell ripped through the ripening wheat as the glistening lines of proud Confederate warriors marched through the valley of harvest: “There go the boys that will march through your lines!” one Confederate medic told a wounded Union prisoner. And march they did, to the very gates of hell it seemed, but not through Federal lines that day.
The attack crossed a mile of open field, enduring horrid casualties, briefly pierced the center line at the stone wall, wavered… then fell back: broken, blood poured out like water on shattered wheat – once waving wheat now flattened under continuous cannon concussion, splattered with the blood of a divided nation.
But what did this fateful attack at Gettysburg mean? And how did it affect that glorious Independence declared 87 years earlier on July 4? Had the attack succeeded, General Robert E. Lee already had drawn up cease-fire partition plans to submit to President Lincoln in Washington. And such was the state of the war that this “separate but equal” plan undoubtedly would have been supported by Congress.
The nation would have been split – if not irrevocably, at least for a foreseeable future – and all this meant for a world that soon needed a whole America. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said the One who walked this human sod. Truly, a divided house could not have stood against global threats in generations to come.
“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people,” said the prophets. There, in the rolling fields of Gettysburg, the result of sin was seen in spades – surely angels wept in the shattered atmosphere, where souls lingered in silent tears. Yet mercy was also poured out with the valiant blood of both sides: a nation yet stood; Independence still meant light for the world. And July 4 now meant far more to a fledgling nation, nation humbled under Almighty hand.
When word of Gettysburg (and Vicksburg) reached Lincoln on July 7, he stood in the early evening of Washington, sober and humble. He spoke to a small gathering, but was so humbled, overcome with emotion, that he could only speak a few sentences. He said something to the effect that the occasion demanded a speech so expressive that he was not up to the task.
He knew the truth: a nation had been preserved. And later, in his eloquent humility, he spoke words worthy of a day of Freedom: “Fourscore 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…” “It is for us the living… to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced… 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.”
Friends, dark forces would divide our nation even today. Storm clouds loom on the horizon. But the battle has passed from physical fields to the battlegrounds of the soul: a war for the heart and mind of all citizens. Truly, all reality has spiritual control. We wrestle not with flesh and blood. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. Today, if we love our country, the best thing we can do is pray and repent, confessing sin and turning from it, seeking God’s face (2 Chron. 7:14). As we return to God personally, bringing hearth and home under divine order, our nation can have a new birth of freedom. May God confirm our soul in His control, our liberty in Law! Amen.