From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

If the Civil War is the most significant event of our national history, the Battle of Gettysburg is surely its most memorable moment. For this issue of History Now, we asked our contributors to provide novel perspectives and new insights into a subject familiar to us all. We believe they have done a remarkable job—and we think you will also. Taken together, these essays touch upon the battle itself, as well as the efforts of women and men whose names are lost to us. But they also remind us that Gettysburg was a real town, not just a scene of battle; that photography has transformed our ability to see the past; that the preservation of historical sites offers us opportunities to visit that past and walk where the men and women who made history walked; and finally, that good history must separate myth from reality. These are powerful and moving essays that will help your students understand why we commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg.

In his essay "How the Town Shaped the Battle: Gettysburg 1863," Allen Guelzo offers us a portrait of the town and its people that helps us understand why Gettysburg became the site of this horrific confrontation between the Blue and the Grey and the effects this confrontation had upon the men and women who lived there. Guelzo shows us how the presence of a civilian population shaped the tactical and strategic choices made by both armies. Just as the wars in our lifetime have been, this war was not simply a contest between armies but a conflagration that swept up men and women who wore no uniforms.

In "The Brave Men, Living and Dead: Common Soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg," Robert Bonner provides us powerful vignettes of ordinary men fighting and dying for causes they believed in. He helps us understand the impact that the death and destruction at Gettysburg had on the men who took the field and survived, and how difficult it was for them to share their experiences with loved ones back home. Long after the war was over, Bonner reminds us, the memories of it remained deeply etched in the memories of those who fought it.

Jane Schultz focuses on the aftermath of battle in her essay "Field Relief Work at Gettysburg." With thousands of dead and wounded lying on the battlefield, both army medical staffs and volunteers struggled to separate the living from the dead and provide care to those who needed it. The task was daunting, for no one had envisioned so many casualties; stretchers had to be found to remove the wounded, triage had to be performed, medical supplies distributed, and personnel gathered to perform a variety of medical duties. Schultz reminds us of the critical role that women played as nurses, both in the Sanitary Commission and as individual volunteers. And she shows us how these women improvised, finding ways to provide food and care in the face of scarcity and confusion. These women often had to battle the prejudices of male medical staff as well as the shortages of supplies.

In "Lincoln’s ‘Flat Failure’: The Gettysburg Myth Revisited," Harold Holzer examines the many myths that have arisen around this most famous speech in American history. He begins by offering some reasons why Americans today so revere the Gettysburg Address. But he goes on to help us separate valid reasons from misconceptions. He explains why these myths came into being and why they have been sustained, but he reminds us of the most salient truth: the speech embodies the best of American ideals.

In "The Relevance of Gettysburg," D. Scott Hartwig reminds us of the evocative power of place as he walks us across the site of the national park and offers us a chance to see what General Meade saw and to put ourselves in the place of Robert E. Lee as he watched his men fleeing from the carnage. Being at the Gettysburg National Military Park, he shows us in several vignettes, provides visitors with deeper insights and with the chance to develop greater historical empathy. 

Finally, Garry Adelman carries Gettysburg into the classroom in "Sharing a Civil War Photograph with a Million People." He provides a stunning lesson in the history of photography itself, offering a step-by-step demonstration of its possibilities in 1863 and its possibilities today. He then gives teachers and students a number of hands-on projects that allow students to use the technology of photography itself and to research its use in the past.

In our interactive feature, Matthew Pinsker takes you on a tour of Gettysburg, a virtual trip you will not want to miss. And, as always, master teachers provide you with lesson plans that you can adapt to your own classroom as you see fit.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. We hope this issue of History Now will help you commemorate this event more fully and with greater historical understanding.

Carol Berkin