The last guns fell silent sometime around 6 on the evening of July 3, 1863. For three days, the massive, Armageddon-like conflict had raged south of the little crossroads town in southeast Pennsylvania, involving 75,000 Confederate and 83,000 Federal soldiers in all. The battle had left more than 50,000 casualties: almost four times more dead and wounded men than the total number of killed and wounded in the entire eight-year-long Revolutionary War. More casualties, in fact, than had been tallied in all previous American wars combined.
It was a Union victory, to be sure, but an immensely costly one. As Robert E. Lee and the badly battered Army of Northern Virginia retreated southward from Pennsylvania, ending the second and final Confederate invasion of the North, 7,000 slain men and 3,000 dead horses—an estimated 6 million lbs. of human and animal carcasses—lay strewn across the field in the summer heat. With 23,000 Union casualties alone, the town of Gettysburg, with a population of 2,400, now had some 10 times that number of dead and wounded men to care for.
One hundred fifty years on, it is hard to imagine an America at war producing dead and dying soldiers, in any number—let alone such enormous ones—with no federal relief organizations; no adequate federal hospitals; no dog tags or other formal provisions for identifying the dead; no procedures for notifying next of kin or for providing aid to the suffering families of dead veterans; no formal system for interring the dead; and no national cemeteries to bury them in.
Americans North and South had embarked on civil war little anticipating the scale of destruction it would inflict and little prepared to meet its imperatives. In important ways the almost unimaginable carnage of Gettysburg would mark a turning point, transforming forever the relation of citizen and state in America as the nation came to recognize and embrace the sacred obligation it owes to those who fight and die in its service.
“Sometimes,” the historian Bernard DeVoto once observed, “there are exceedingly brief periods which determine a long future.” It is commonplace to acknowledge that the four-year-long American Civil War was such a time. But the three-day battle of Gettysburg itself—along with the moral, political, cultural and rhetorical forces propelled into being by the enormous tide of death left in its wake—can be said to be one of the great founding moments in American life: an exceedingly brief point in time during which some key aspects of the American Republic we know today began to take a recognizable shape.
The Battle’s Toll
In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, the work of burying thousands upon thousands of dead fell to the Union forces who held the devastated battleground—and to the stunned citizens of the town itself, who were implored to help the beleaguered Union soldiers, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before them. And many of the residents found themselves all but overwhelmed as well. John S. Forney faced the task of burying the 79 North Carolinians who had fallen in a perfect line on his farm; Lydia Leister, a widow, confronted 15 dead horses in her front yard on July 4.
Mass burials of enemy soldiers proceeded in the summer heat. Details of Union soldiers interred dead Confederates in trenches containing as many as 150 or more men, the decomposing bodies often hurled rather than laid to rest. Soldiers stomped on top of the dead, according to an Iowa soldier who observed such duty in the wake of the 1862 Battle of Shiloh, “straightening out their legs and arms and tramping them down so as to make the hole contain as many as possible.”
Sometimes the rotting bodies ruptured, compelling burial parties to work elsewhere until the stench had dissipated. So many bodies lay unburied after three days of battle that a surgeon described the atmosphere as almost intolerable. One young boy who lived in town recalled that everyone “went about with a bottle of pennyroyal or peppermint oil” to counteract the smell. Gettysburg residents complained of a stench that persisted until October, when at last the frost came.
Slain Union comrades were accorded more respect and, if possible, an individual grave. Soldiers, perhaps imagining how they would wish to be treated in similar circumstances, improvised ways of providing dignified treatment for the soldiers who had fought alongside them. It was a matter of affirming the humanity of both the living and the dead. Often soldiers sought out friends of the missing, in hopes they could provide aid, help identify bodies and graves, or assist in gathering information for loved ones at home, who otherwise might never know the fate of their absent kin. One soldier from Michigan was relieved to find that a burial party had already interred his friend along with dozens of his fellow soldiers. “All pains possible was taken in their burial,” he wrote. “In some cases their bloody garments were removed and washed and dried on limbs of trees, then replaced.”
Two soldiers from Maine received permission to return to the part of the field where they had last seen a close friend on the third day of battle, and search for any sign of him. “We found him,” one of them wrote, “face down, and with many others the flesh eaten (in that hot climate) by maggots, but not so bad but that we could recognize him. When we went to bury him, all we could find to dig a grave was an old hoe in a small building. The bottom of the grave was covered with empty knapsacks; we laid in our beloved brother and covered him with another knapsack, and over all put as much earth as we could find. The grave was dug at the foot of a large tree. We found a piece of a hard wood box cover and cut his name on it with a jackknife and nailed it to the tree at the head of his grave.”
The Comrades Left Behind
As news of the enormous battle spread to Washington, Philadelphia and beyond, families and volunteers began to descend on the little Pennsylvania town, stretching its capacities to the limit but also offering help in caring for the wounded and dead. Agents of the U.S. Sanitary Commission—a federally authorized, privately-funded relief organization established early in the war to provide aid for sick and wounded Union soldiers—were well aware that their work made them an important and often unique resource for anxious families desperate for information of any kind about their sons, fathers and brothers. They began systematically surveying field hospitals and burial sites, creating ledgers of casualties and directories of patients in order to be able to respond to inquiries from worried and often frantic relatives. The agency was soon inundated with letters and requests.
During the battle, Confederate units had established nearly 40 makeshift field hospitals close to the battleground to care for an eventual 15,000 wounded and 5,000 sick officers and men. But when Lee’s defeated army moved south in retreat, hurrying to cross the Potomac to safety, thousands of suffering Confederate soldiers who could not safely be moved were left behind to die or to be taken as prisoners of war. Others were hastily loaded onto carts and wagons or instructed to walk alongside the ragtag procession of retreating men that represented the remains of the Confederate army.
Soon all the men were drenched by an unrelenting summer rain—a downpour so heavy, one witness said, it was as if “the very windows of heaven seemed to have opened.” For the suffering, it seemed perhaps more like the windows of hell. Many of them died en route, and hastily dug shallow graves dotted the roadside along Lee’s route of retreat. For some of the more privileged among the rebel dead, personal slaves who had accompanied their masters north carried their bodies south for burial at home.
The repatriation of the Confederate slain would continue long after both the battle and the war were over, as would the pain and anguish and dislocation those deaths caused. In the early 1870s, memorial associations of white Southern women would arrange for several thousand more Confederate dead from Gettysburg to be disinterred and transported to cemeteries in Richmond and Charleston, where they were reburied with solemn pageantry and celebrations of the South’s Lost Cause.
From the Dead, a Nation Reborn
And yet for all the horror, heartache and dismay, something new in the American experience would begin to arise from the fields of Gettysburg in the days, weeks and months following the battle. For nine months—since the Battle of Antietam, in September 1862, the bloodiest single day in American history—the inexorably rising death tolls of the war, the cumulative experience of mass death in America, had been exerting a powerfully transforming impact on American culture, at least in the North: on military strategy, on public policy, on the very definition of the war’s meaning and purpose; as if death itself, under certain circumstances, could take on an enormous generative power and creativity.
No formal policy or appropriation for burying the dead would emerge during the war itself. However, in 1862, as the death tolls soared, the U.S. Congress had passed measures granting the President and the War Department the power to purchase grounds near battlefields—on an emergency basis, as circumstance and public health concerns dictated.
But the burial ground that now began to take shape south of Gettysburg would go far beyond the practical needs of disposing of dead bodies. Soldiers and citizens; businessmen and military officers; and local, state and federal officials came together in an unprecedented collective action, one that would foreshadow and for the first time begin to embody a new sense of obligation and responsibility to the dead and a new sense of national purpose in the North—and would begin to suggest how a restored U.S. might eventually bind itself together again into a new American Republic, one with a past and a future, consecrated both to memory and to hope, a Republic of the living and the dead.
Not long after the battle—with financial help from every Northern state that had lost men in the engagement—a local lawyer named David Wills oversaw the purchase of 17 acres in the town, adjoining the existing private cemetery, which was soon taken over by the Federal Government. In October, contracts were let for the reburial of Union soldiers on the new ground, at the rate of $1.59 for each body.
On Nov. 19, 1863, a host of dignitaries from Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, including President Abraham Lincoln himself, journeyed to Pennsylvania to dedicate Gettysburg’s new Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Just a few months before, 7,000 corpses had lain strewn across the surrounding fields; even now still unburied coffins stood stacked nearby. Lincoln knew he was in a place of death. But his work was to give this intolerable sacrifice meaning, and in so doing explain the purposes of the war and, indeed, of the American nation.
Lincoln’s brief but soaring remarks—like the new burial ground itself at Gettysburg, with its rows of identical graves radiating symmetrically, and democratically, around the cemetery’s central focus—marked a seismic shift in governmental attitude and policy toward the dead. The President’s words affirmed that the dead were no longer simply the responsibility of their families, but rather that the deceased, and their loss, and their meaning, belonged to the entire nation.
The address—what the historian Garry Wills called “the words that remade America”—was nothing less than a prescription for civic rebirth, a call for a kind of collective transubstantiation of the American body politic, one that urgently stressed the steps the nation and its citizens must take so that the deaths on the battlefield might not have been in vain but have meaning and purpose; such that death, in short, might be transformed into life, not in a religious sense but in a political sense: deaths incurred that a nation might live; a redefining of the nation’s future as being tied to the deaths that had secured it.
“These honored dead” had died “that a nation might live.” In their honor, this nation must now ensure “a new birth of freedom” and the survival of that form of government Lincoln had elsewhere described as “the last, best hope of earth”: a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” The President’s words transformed the loss of death into the immortality of a redeemer nation. The price paid by the Gettysburg dead required not just that the unfinished work of the war be completed but also that it be dedicated to the cause of equality and freedom, which would consecrate their sacrifice by ensuring its transcendent purpose.
Gettysburg presented the nation with a roll of death and a landscape of carnage unlike any it had either experienced or imagined. But it also redefined the meaning of death in the nation’s service and the purposes of the nation itself. We still live in the world those who died at Gettysburg created for us, with the work of freedom and equality to which they gave their lives still unfinished.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, TIME has published a richly illustrated 192-page book, Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War. To buy a copy, go to time.com/gettysburgbook