Civil War: A Victory Saves the Union

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In June of 1863, reports of Confederate troops aroused fear in the farming communities along the Pennsylvania border. Many African-American residents of Adams County fled north to escape potential capture and enslavement. From July 1 through 3, the now-peaceful college town of Gettysburg became the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. A deciding point in the conflict, the Union victory came at a terrible cost. More than 50,000 Americans lost their lives on the battlefield.

Four months later, Abraham Lincoln visited to dedicate the Soldier's National Cemetery. His brief but eloquent speech - the Gettysburg Address - achieved immortality for the battle and the struggle. Gettysburg was memorialized as a rebirth of freedom "four scores and seven years" after the Declaration of Independence.

In Gettysburg, the past is always present. Mementos of the battle are everywhere, from bullet holes that pepper the walls of Historic Farnsworth House Inn to an artillery shell still stuck in the side of the Samuel Schmucker House. Memorial statues and obelisks stand as sentinels to honor the men who gave their lives here.

Today, tourists stroll through town and mingle with re-enactors in Union and Confederate uniforms. Visitors can stop at the restored train station where Lincoln arrived, the David Wills House where he spent the night before delivering the Gettysburg Address, or the Wade House where 20-year-old Jennie Wade became the only civilian casualty.

The scale of conflict and the heroism on both sides makes the 6,000 acres of the Gettysburg Battlefield hallowed ground for all who visit. Walking these now-serene fields, it is impossible not to reflect on the sacrifices of those who fought and died here. The Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center brings the battle to life through the recently restored Cyclorama - a 360-degree panorama of Pickett's Charge, the battle's iconic climax. Interactive exhibits feature personal stories artifacts and journals that explain the background, events and legacy of Gettysburg.

The surrounding countryside Gettysburg is also rich in Civil War-era history. Pennsylvania communities such as Chambersburg were located close to the Mason-Dixon Line, and were active in anti-slavery activities before the war and military encounters during it. John Brown, the fiery abolitionist, stayed at Mary Ritner's Boarding House in Chambersburg while planning his 1859 attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry.

The nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (pacivilwar150.com) in 2013. Then as now Gettysburg reminds us, as Lincoln did, that we all share responsibility that this "government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth."

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