Seven score and 10 years ago, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia clashed in the greatest battle of the Civil War. It was three days of great courage, terrible sacrifice and high drama that ultimately determined the future of our great nation.
And of the 157,289 soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy who met in battle at Gettysburg 150 years ago, the most unique among them were the 938 soldiers from West Virginia. Only days earlier, they had called themselves Virginians, but the birth of West Virginia on June 20, 1863, made them West Virginians – and Mountaineers.
They were the 7th West Virginia Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the 1st West Virginia Cavalry Regiment, the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry Regiment and Battery C of the 1st West Virginia Artillery. There are monuments at the Gettysburg battlefield commemorating the “valor and fidelity” of the members of each unit and paying special honor to the 11 West Virginians who died and the 47 who were wounded.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, West Virginia University and the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences have organized a very special ceremony honoring the Union and Confederate soldiers who gave their last full measure of devotion.
The ceremony marks the first time that all the names of the 7,863 soldiers who consecrated the hallowed ground of Gettysburg with the sacrifice of their lives will be read out loud. I join the organizers in hoping that the reading of these names becomes an ongoing annual event.
It is – as Abraham Lincoln noted in his celebrated Gettysburg Address – altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. It is also altogether fitting and proper that this ceremony take place in the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg, the very cemetery that was dedicated by President Lincoln with immortal words that heralded “a new birth of freedom” in America.
Indeed, one of the great ironies of history is that it was on the Fourth of July in 1863 – Independence Day – that General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate Army retreated from Gettysburg back to Virginia.
Lee would go on to win other victories, but the Battle of Gettysburg irrevocably turned the tide of the Civil War in the Union’s favor. And West Virginians helped make that possible.
We the people of West Virginia have never failed to answer our country’s call. No demand has been too great, no danger too daunting, and no trial too threatening.
West Virginia ranked first, second, or third in military casualty rates in every U.S. war of the 20th century – twice that of New York’s and Connecticut’s in Vietnam, more than two and a half times the rate of those two states in Korea.
Today, 13.8 percent of West Virginia’s population is made up of veterans, the 7th highest percentage among all states, higher than the national average of 12.1 percent, higher than more populous states like Florida, New York, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania.
It’s like I always say – West Virginia is one of the most patriotic states.
West Virginians have always been champions of liberty. We are a state with people of spine, nobility, and valor.
We have sent generations of warriors forward to the battle field in the defense of freedom, and on this Fourth of July, there are still West Virginians serving in harm’s way.
But that long line of West Virginia heroes first formed 150 years ago this week – on the Chambersburg Pike, on Cemetery Ridge, on Taneytown Road, on the Emmitsburg Road – in a great test of this nation, at a place called Gettysburg.