Gettysburg: Teaching the American Fighting Tradition

In recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Americans would do well to remember Abraham Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address to honor the sacrifice of the men who fought there.

The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment made an incredible stand at Little Round Top, culminating in a dramatic downhill charge that arguably saved both the Union left flank and perhaps the entire battle for the boys in blue. On the flip side, one looks in awe at the ground that had to be covered, under heavy cannon fire, by Confederate soldiers under Maj. Gen. George Pickett in the ill-fated charge into the Union center. For those who travel to the sacred ground at Gettysburg, it is hard not to admire those who fought on both sides.

Modern classrooms ignore the history of military conflict to an appalling degree. Students only learn that the Civil War was about abolitionists, WWI was about the League of Nations, and WWII was all about throwing Japanese citizens into internment camps. This is a shame and a detriment to future generations of Americans.

Never mind that slavery was largely extinguished by rough men in American uniforms, the League of Nations was defeated by Congress and failed to achieve even narrow goals, and that Japanese internment was created by liberal Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and fought by a conservative Republican governor of Colorado, Ralph L. Carr.

It was in large part the early nineteenth century way of teaching about the American Revolution that inspired the patriotism and the will of Northern soldiers to fight and die for the Union. Also, the devotion of leaders to inculcate the values of patriotism and American exceptionalism through speeches to the American people inspired many to fight for their country. This emphasis is sadly evaporating in modern public school classrooms in exchange for stifling political correctness; it is diminished by politicians that fail to, or intentionally avoid, speaking of the great values and people that made this nation great.

There was a bust of George Washington in nearly every early nineteenth century classroom, and American history books emphasized the sacrifice and suffering of Washington’s troops at Valley Forge. The most popular history textbook before the Civil War, written by legendary historian George Bancroft, spoke very little about politics or anything else regarding the Revolution other than the battles and its basic ideals. Bancroft’s A History of the United States gave a blow by blow account of the Revolutionary War battlefields, and more importantly, described how liberty comes at a terrible cost.

Statesmen like Daniel Webster of Massachusetts made powerful orations about the American patriots of the Revolution whom they admired. It must be noted that Webster was a Whig and Bancroft a Democrat, but the gap between parties at that time indicated no gap in patriotism. Webster celebrated the heroes of Bunker Hill in an incredible speech in 1825. He finished with the flourish, “Let our object be, our country, our whole country, and nothing but our country. And, by the blessing of God, may that country itself become a vast and splendid monument, not of oppression and terror, but of Wisdom, of Peace, and of Liberty, upon which the world may gaze with admiration for ever!”

Ronald Reagan upheld the tradition of celebrating American exceptionalism and sacrifice when he made his oration at Normandy in tribute to the “Boys of Pointe Du Hoc.”

Reagan finished his speech:

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: "I will not fail thee nor forsake thee. Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their value [valor] and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

It was likely the emphasis on the sacrifice of American soldiers and the special mission of the United States that inspired Maj. Sullivan Ballou of the Rhode Island Volunteers in a letter to his wife, Sarah, on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run.

Ballou’s letter, made famous by the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, is a testament to the patriotism and dedication of Union and American soldiers who have served in all of this country’s conflicts.

Ballou beautifully wrote what will hopefully inspire all generations of Americans who pledge to defend their country and their Constitution:

I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

The patriotism of Major Ballou and many other Union soldiers undoubtedly came from teachers who inculcated strong, American principles into their students and from the values they were raised with. This will be lost if young Americans no longer understand the incredible sacrifices that were made to ensure that this would be a land of liberty, and that the Union—made great by the Constitution that makes us free citizens of a republic—would last forever.


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