The Potomac River was rain-swollen on that sixth day of July in 1863, when the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Confederate General Robert E. Lee came upon it. Retreating from their catastrophic defeat at Gettysburg, Penn., Lee's exhausted and beleaguered troops had nowhere to go, trapped by the high water and swift current of the river.
As Lee's army despaired at the sight of the Potomac, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens, met despair of a different sort as he approached Washington, D. C. Dispatched under a flag of truce by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a native of Crawfordville, Ga., had requested a meeting with President Abraham Lincoln to negotiate prisoner exchanges and other issues.
Stephens' arrival was timed to coincide with what Davis had hoped would be Lee's victorious army marching on America's capital from the northwest, leading to speculation which still exists that the vice president was also authorized to present peace overtures.
But news of the Union victory at Gettysburg had reached the White House prior to Stephens' request for an audience, and Lincoln refused the Georgian's request to pass through the Union lines.
As the Crawfordville statesman turned for home, could he have known that less than 100 miles away Lee's army waited for Union General George Meade's Army of the Potomac to surround and annihilate them?
Lincoln hoped for a knockout punch, stating as much in a letter to Union General Henry Halleck, "... if General Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee's army, the rebellion will be over."
But the cautious Meade had sent only a few elements of his army on half-hearted forays in pursuit. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, trapped on the morning of July 6, finally forded the river a week later.
Gettysburg, nevertheless, constituted for the South not only a devastating military loss, but an egregious political loss which all but guaranteed the North's inevitable triumph.
The Confederacy's only hope for independence required not just military victories, but also recognition for the upstart nation from abroad. Lacking foundries for weapons, shipyards for a navy and factories for finished goods, the South looked to Europe for assistance. When news reached London of Gettysburg, coupled with the nearly simultaneous fall of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, hopes for European recognition were virtually abandoned.
Henry Brooks Adams, grandson and great-grandson of United States presidents, serving in London during the Civil War as the anonymous correspondent for The New York Times, wrote, "The disasters of the rebels are unredeemed by even any hope of success. It is now conceded that all idea of [European] intervention is at an end."
Gettysburg also caused the loss of economic support from abroad, as the bottom fell out of the European market for Confederate war bonds.
"News of Gettysburg and Vicksburg," Adams intimated, "led to a sell-off in rebel bonds and the probability of a southern victory, pegged at 42 percent early in 1863, fell to about 15 percent by the end of 1863."
For the Confederacy in general, and Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in particular, Gettysburg constituted a disastrous turn from which they could not recover. Busey and Martin's definitive 2005 work, "Regimental Strengths and Losses," put Union personnel casualties at 23,055; rebel casualties totaled 23,231. The North eventually replaced the men lost at Gettysburg; the less-populated South found it impossible to do so.
Gettysburg, too, offered the first tangible proof that General Robert E. Lee was not invincible, after all. This was not lost upon the men of the Army of Northern Virginia, shivering as they huddled in a driving rain on the banks of the swollen Potomac River that morning some 145 years ago today.
Can it really be that just two generations ago, laid end-to-end, our country was divided in half? Is it possible that this nation fought a cataclysmic war to decide whether the federal government should hold sway over how individual states govern affairs within their borders, a mere 145 years ago? Is there any wonder, then, why we are still so divided as to how we should govern ourselves today?
Freedom, in reality, is much more than just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is an idea and an ideal, and whether it survives and flourishes depends upon the will of the people. How freedom is perpetrated, institutionalized and protected by our government continues to be the most crucial issue to ever face America.
The men who held the Union line at the angle believed that, as did those men shivering on the banks of the Potomac. One other fellow who knew something of freedom, President Abraham Lincoln, spoke eloquently of it when he dedicated the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg.
Lincoln's words ring as true and relevant today as they did 145 years ago, for freedom is not free. Regardless of its interpretation, freedom has been bought for us at a terrible price; it must be cherished, nourished and zealously protected. For every imaginable contemporary circumstance, Lincoln's closing challenge--still a thoroughfare for freedom--beats:
"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
And the boys in blue, and their brothers in gray, all said, "Amen."
May God continue to bless our land, these United States of America.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.