By Loy Mershimer
Okeechobee Presbyterian Church
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 fixed, 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. Already, Lincoln stood very alone in his resolve of a unified America free of slavery: a war-time president, he carried the weight of the war on his shoulders, to the constant vilification of media and political enemies.
The nation would have been split and the world so desperately needed a whole America. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said the One who walked this human sod; and a divided house could not have stood against lurking totalitarian evil.
“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: a nation yet stood, Independence still meant light for the world. July 4 now meant far more to a fledgling nation, nation humbled under Almighty hand.
When word of Gettysburg (and Vicksburg) reached Lincoln on the 7th, he stood in the early evening of Washington, sober and humble. He spoke to gathered persons and reporters, but was so humble, and so overcome with emotion, that he could only speak a few sentences: he said something to the effect that such occasion demanded a speech so eloquent 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, words only he could have written and spoken: “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 love to divide our nation even today, viciously canceling others due to political or historical differences. This is so sad, and so contrary to the meaning of Freedom!
It is fascinating, how the warriors on both side of that old Civil War (those who actually fought on the field) often viewed the others as heroes – and even at points of fierce battle, gave begrudging respect to one another. At Appomattox, Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, trained minister and leader of men, was tasked with overseeing the surrender. When the tattered boys in Grey began to approach, rank upon rank, Chamberlain ordered down the Blue line, “Carry arms!” – the old marching salute of warriors to one another. General Gordon, leading the Confederate ranks, was riding in advance of his troops, “his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description.” But at the sudden sound of thousands of rifles being moved to salutes of honor! What a difference.
Chamberlain writes: “At the sound of that machine-like snap of arms, General Gordon started, instantly caught its significance, and immediately assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse’s head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.”
Gen. Gordon sent orders back along the lines, that his own troops take the same carry position of marching salute. And thus, the lines faced each other: honor to honor. For four hours Gen. Chamberlain and the Federal troops held their courteous positions as the Southern troops marched by, respect giving place to respect. Chamberlain comments: “Truly imposing was the sight of mutual salutation and farewell!”
This is what it means to be an American, friends. This is the meaning of Independence Day. honor, respect, and love, even for those with differing stances. The ugly stuff now sweeping over the land, tearing apart cities, tearing down history, tearing up terms of order and work, burning, slashing, looting, shooting, hating – that stuff is not from America. It’s an invading spirit that hates what America truly means. Stand, friends!
May we never forget the meaning of July 4, and how this meaning has been measured and defended in blood on subsequent July 4ths – a new birth of freedom. May we take renewed devotion to the task yet before us, pleading the grace of God! And may we never lack in standing against evil in our own time, in our own hearts. Amen.