GETTYSBURG -- We are met on a great battlefield of the Civil War.

It was here 150 years ago that the war turned, that its conclusion, while not visible, was at least imaginable. And it was here, four months later, that a 270-word speech transformed the war from a struggle to save the Union to one to save the soul of the country.

Many acts of heroism occurred here, most of them lost to history. Many acts of folly and futility occurred here, one of them (Pickett's Charge) preserved in a thousand histories and in a nation's collective memory. Ten remarkable sentences of enduring wisdom were uttered here, memorized by generations of Americans who share the liberty that Abraham Lincoln assured was won here.

Pressed into the soil here were the footfalls of Robert E. Lee, George G. Meade and George Pickett; of 50,000 men who would be counted as casualties; of many multiples more who would survive; and, in November 1863, of Lincoln himself -- making Gettysburg perhaps the only American town of 2,400 people ever to bear witness to the toil of so many figures of such grandeur.

Gettysburg is more than three times bigger than it was a century and a half ago, but it remains one of the few towns of its size that does not require a state to identify its location.

Gettysburg is not so much a Pennsylvania town as an American icon. Like Valley Forge, it belongs to our common history more than to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Both are obscure corners of the country sanctified by sacrifice -- consecrated, you might say, far above our poor power to add or detract.

But here, even more than at Valley Forge, we feel the terrible toll of the terrible swift sword, the great losses suffered by warriors from both sides when the men abandoned the altars of the evening dews and damps and slipped quietly into battle, some of them moving silently to their violent deaths.

The beginning of July 1863 was a peculiar American moment -- a time when the destiny of a continent began to be clarified -- but it was not an inevitable moment. In his Second Inaugural Address in March 1865, Lincoln would note that soldiers and sympathizers of both sides "read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." Union forces may have come to believe that they moved with God's gusts at their back, but before Gettysburg the resolution of the war was anything but certain.

Antietam lit the way, and with a Union victory at a creek there the previous September, Lincoln felt sufficient confidence to contemplate his Emancipation Proclamation. But Gettysburg may be the better dividing line, and 1863, like 1963 a century later, might be the better benchmark to see a world transformed.

The year 1863 marked the passing of some of the symbolic figures of the old era. Besides Stonewall Jackson, who had died at Chancellorsville two months before the fighting at Gettysburg, these figures -- giants of a world that itself was perishing -- left this Earth: Sam Houston, Eugene Delacroix, William Makepeace Thackeray.

By the dim and flaring lamps of 150 years of perspective we now see that Gettysburg split the Civil War into two parts: before and after, much like the war split the country in two, setting state against state and sometimes brother against brother.

The year 1863 also stands as a dividing line between two eras, both in the New World and in the Old. It was the year when ground was broken on the transcontinental railroad and when Jules Verne published "Five Weeks in a Balloon," both pointing to a future when engineering and scientific exploration would shape the world.

In that year, six men who would play major roles in the decades to come were born: Franz Ferdinand and David Lloyd George, one whose assassination at Sarajevo would start World War I, the other whose work at Versailles would end World War I; William Randolph Hearst, who would boast of starting another war and who would personify the growth of big media; Henry Ford, who would make the world mobile with his Model T but render workers immobile with his assembly line; Edvard Munch, whose scream against modernity would resonate even in our own time; and Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux holy man and visionary who would change our own view of the conquest of the continent his people once dominated.

The importance of Gettysburg was evident instantly. In his diary, New York lawyer George Templeton Strong recognized that the battle removed Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore from danger of raids, or perhaps even occupation, by Confederate forces even as it ended the cult of invincibility that Union soldiers had built up around their rival, Robert E. Lee.

Grant and his Army of the Tennessee would prevail at Vicksburg after a siege of nearly seven weeks, the Confederate surrender coming a day after the end of the conflict at Gettysburg. Together Gettysburg and Vicksburg provided unmistakable evidence of the superiority of the Union effort. The Confederacy was sliced into two parts and its hold on the Mississippi was broken, prompting Lincoln to conclude, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

The America that would emerge out of the Civil War would be riven by the tensions produced by an industrializing nation struggling to reach its economic potential, redeem its political promises, rebuild its ravaged countryside and heal its deep emotional wounds, all at the same time.

It was in this period that the Dostoyevsky brothers published Alexander Ostrovsky's play "Sin and Sorrow Are Common to All," which provides the leitmotif for the year, a year in which the soldiers of Gettysburg died to make men free and in which a country lawyer, while dedicating and consecrating the cemetery at Gettysburg, gave his country a new birth of freedom.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.