Jan. 1st marked the 159th anniversary of the day Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect. At that precise moment, however, not a single slave was set free because its provisions only applied to slaves still under the control of the Confederacy. Lincoln worded it that way in order not to risk losing the support of the four border states where slavery was still legal. Only slaves liberated by the advancing Union armies after Jan. 1st would be freed.
The Battle of Gettysburg, still six months in the future, would change all that, in effect rendering the Emancipation Proclamation obsolete.
My connection to Gettysburg has little to do with the famous Civil War battle, but does go back over 90 years and is very deep. My maternal grandparents, Ottavio and Geneva Conti, are buried in Evergreen Cemetery on the backside of what is now known as Cemetery Hill where Lincoln delivered his eloquent Gettysburg Address in November 1863. Also buried there are my maternal great-grandmother, and my Uncle Eddie and cousin Ruth Elaine, both of whom died in infancy.
My mother’s family had been living in Brooklyn, where my mother Evelyn and most of her siblings had been born. But in the late 1920s, when my mother was seven or eight, a doctor recommended for health reasons that my grandmother get out of the city, so my grandparents bought a gas station and cabin complex — what passed for a “motel” in those days — out near Barlow’s Knoll, where heavy fighting had taken place on July 1st, 1863.
Meanwhile, my father, John Ehrhart, was growing up not far away in the small crossroads community of Hampton, Pennsylvania. He graduated from York Springs High School and became a student at Gettysburg College. To help pay his way, he worked as a “soda jerk” at the drugstore on the town square where my mother and her girlfriends would drop by after a day at Gettysburg High. You can figure the rest of that story.
They were married in 1943 shortly before my father was ordained as a minister. But various Contis continued to live in or near Gettysburg for many years. In 1963, my pal Larry Rush and I spent a week with my Aunt Bert during the Centennial commemoration of the battle. I vividly remember the demonstrations of a gun crew loading and firing a cannon and an infantryman loading and firing a musket. Way cool stuff for a 14-year-old.
Then two of my three brothers ended up going to Gettysburg College as well, graduating respectively in 1967 and 1977. So I spent a lot of time over many years exploring the Devil’s Den and Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill, climbing the observation towers, and walking through town looking for bullet holes in old houses.
By the time I was teaching U.S. history at the Haverford School for Boys in this new century, and we’d take the students every year on a field trip to Gettysburg, I could have led the battlefield tour myself. And while all the boys headed to McDonald’s and Pizza Hut for lunch, my colleague Kevin Tryon and I would always eat at General Pickett’s Buffet: all you could eat for 10 bucks.
One of the things we always did on this trip was to take the boys to the spot where Lincoln delivered his famous address. One of us would read it aloud with the boys gathered around. It is one of the most misunderstood speeches in American history.
When Lincoln praised those “brave men, living and dead,” who “hallowed this ground,” he was not referring to the Confederate dead, who were trying to dissolve and withdraw from “a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’” There were and are no Confederate soldiers buried in the cemetery he was dedicating that day.
Lincoln was referring only to the Union dead, who were willing to sacrifice their lives to see that this nation would “endure.” It was their bravery that hallowed the ground at Gettysburg. Their bravery he was honoring.
Moreover, his short speech signaled quietly but unmistakably that, contrary to earlier assertions, the ultimate goal of this war was not just preserving the Union, but rather putting an end to slavery. If you read it carefully, that is what the Gettysburg Address announces.
Why else would Lincoln talk about “a new birth of freedom”? Who do we think he was talking about? White Americans, northern or southern, didn’t need “a new birth of freedom.” Those in need of freedom were African Americans. The four million enslaved Americans. Lincoln meant to free the slaves.
I recently visited my grandparents’ graves again in the company of the artist Jane Irish and her boyfriend. It is simply a matter of coincidence that I have any connection to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the terrible battle that was fought there. But every time I go there, I am reminded that one side in that fight was right, and one side was terribly wrong. And it makes me terribly sad that the wrong side in that struggle still wields far more power and influence in this country than it has any legitimate claim to.
W.D. Ehrhart, Ph.D., received the Purple Heart Medal, Navy Combat Action Ribbon, and a Division Commander’s Commendation for his service as a Marine in Vietnam. He grew up in Bucks County and now lives in Bryn Mawr.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Too many have yet to embrace the truth Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg