Other Views: This Independence Day spurs reflections on Gettysburg, freedom

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Arthur I. Cyr
Tuesday, July 2, 2013

This year, the Fourth of July immediately follows the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. After the enormous battle at the small Pennsylvania town July 1-3, 1863, the Confederacy never again mounted a major offensive.

Gettysburg was the turning point of our bloody Civil War. Wisconsin contributed six infantry regiments and a company of special sharpshooters to Union forces engaged on that field.

President Abraham Lincoln's brief Gettysburg Address, commemorating the battlefield cemetery, emphasized essential human equality, as well as strong national unity. The profound effect of this speech reflected his leadership skills throughout the war.

First, the gifted politician both gauged and guided public opinion, simultaneously building the Northern coalition to preserve the Union and the more tenuous coalition of sentiment against slavery.

At the start of the war, Lincoln skillfully maneuvered the South into firing the first shots, against a ship with provisions for the island outpost of Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

In January 1863, he raised the stakes from simply preserving the Union to ending slavery. The limited Union victory at Antietam in September 1862, after continuing defeats, provided credibility for the Emancipation Proclamation.

However, the declaration ended slavery only in the Confederate states. Slavery was not touched in Northern states, including the vital border states where pro-slavery sentiments were strong.

In the last year of the war, Lincoln was able to abolish slavery completely through the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He realized that once the Confederacy was defeated, much of the anti-slavery sentiment would dissipate. The recent film “Lincoln” provides a reasonably accurate portrayal of the tremendous effort, including at times unsavory political horse trading.

Second, Lincoln was an insightful strategist. The Civil War was the first modern total war, and the president grasped early that economics were as vital as armed forces.

The agrarian South lacked the industrial base necessary to sustain this type of war. Lincoln immediately emphasized Union naval blockade along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, plus gaining control of the major rivers.

Simultaneously with the Gettysburg victory, Gen. Ulysses Grant captured the strategically vital city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. The long-term siege involved complex engineering and patience. Lincoln promoted him to command of all Union armies.

Third, Lincoln was a brilliant writer and speaker, but the Gettysburg address must be understood as one visible rhetorical tip of enormous, underlying continuous effort. A political leader who relies on rhetoric alone will fail.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen distinguished professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.

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