Washington, Lincoln, and the Fourth of July in Pennsylvania

In July, my thoughts inevitably turn patriotic. I can’t help it. Living in Pennsylvania, I am reminded of momentous events of July’s past and the people who made history.

Washington at Fort Necessity. July 1754. Detail of "Charming Field for an Encounter," Griffing.
Washington at Fort Necessity. July 1754. Detail of “Charming Field for an Encounter,” Griffing.

On July 4th in 1754, a young (23-year-old) George Washington surrendered his command to French forces in the Western Pennsylvania wilderness at place he called the Great Meadow. It is known to history as Fort Necessity, a rude stockade he had constructed to protect his livestock and supplies from marauders as he marched his 300-man command to the Forks of the Ohio (the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers where Pittsburgh now stands). The stockade became “a fort of necessity” when he found himself outnumbered and surrounded by the French and their Indian allies. Still, Washington miraculously extricated his men from this perilous predicament.

He returned to the same place the following year, this time as an aide de camp to General Edward Braddock. Braddock’s British army was famously massacred on the banks of the Monongahela on July, 9, 1755. Washington, with bullet holes in his coat but otherwise unscathed, marched the survivors of Braddock’s defeat back to Virginia. It had been the worst defeat of British arms in North America up to that time.

Twenty years later, on July 3, 1775, Washington took command of the colonial forces (that later became the Continental Army) that openly defied the British King George, ruler of the most powerful nation on earth. On July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, the united American colonies formally declared their independence from Great Britain and Washington led his fellow Americans to victory, independence, and, in 1787, the creation of a new Constitution.

Violet Oakley’s murals depicting Washington and Lincoln making history hang in Pennsylvania’s Capitol.

Four score and seven (87) years after the Declaration of Independence, great armies from North and South converged on the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg to decide the fate of the new nation created by Washington and others of the founding generation. This time the soldiers in the opposing armies were all Americans. From July 1 to July 4, 1863 Union and Confederate soldiers fought the largest and bloodiest battle (51,000 casualties) ever waged on this continent. Robert E. Lee’s retreat on the evening of July 4th—the same day as the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi –  represented the turning point of the Civil War.

Lincoln after delivering his Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln after delivering his Gettysburg Address.

Later that year, President Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as national cemetery. In his brief (272 word) address, he recalled the dream of the founders of our nation—his father’s generation. Yes, his Gettysburg Address was intended to honor the dead, those who gave “the last full measure of devotion,” but it focused on the future. Lincoln recalled that the Declaration of Independence was predicated on the belief that “all men are created equal.” He fervently believed that this nation “of the people, by the people, for the people,” though still in its formative stage, was a model for the world and must not “perish from the earth.”

A lot of history has been made here in Pennsylvania. It is “altogether fitting and proper” that on July 4 we reflect on our past. It is an important date for Pennsylvanians, Americans, and citizens of the world.

Perhaps, July 4th is a day for us to reflect on the work of those who have gone before and rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work of building the United States of America.

Andy Masich is the president and CEO at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

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