It is something that I have pondered in the past, and though I did not have it necessarily narrowed down to one specific moment, I have always said that it would absolutely not be a battle scene. I have no interest in seeing such carnage in person, not to mention that I would not want to be present to simply and helplessly witness such horrific events if I was not able to participate.
That being said, I answered the question, as I have done before, with this answer: As far as a military event I would want to witness, I would like to have had a bird's-eye view of Pennsylvania's Cumberland and Susquehanna valleys on June 30 and July 1, 1863, to see the convergence of 160,000-plus Union and Confederate soldiers toward Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for the war's costliest and nearly most-massive battle. Being able to see that many people all moving toward such a small place along ten roads would be mesmerizing.
As for a political or social event for which I would like to have been present, it would be President Abraham Lincoln's visit to Gettysburg on Nov. 18 and 19, 1863. Not only would I like to witness the delivering of the Gettysburg Address, but I would love to have gotten a sense of the vibe surrounding the town and the president on those days.
After some reflection over the days since I was asked that question, however, I have come to a new conclusion regarding what event I would like to have been present for, and it is, in fact, not really an event in a typical sense, but a moment--several consecutive moments, really.
Those moments spanned the long, cold, dark night of Dec. 31, 1862, into the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1863. It was during that time that Lincoln reflected on his most important wartime decision, an act which affected millions of enslaved human beings "who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice," to quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During that final night of 1862, Lincoln considered the weight of what King would 100 years later call a "momentous decree" that "came as as beacon light of hope" and "as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of...captivity."
The action Lincoln pondered that night would change the course, the purpose, the meaning, and the legacy not only of the American Civil War, but in some ways, all of American history: The Emancipation Proclamation.
Here is journalist and historian Todd Brewster's poetic narrative detailing those moments, which is an excerpt from his fine book, "Lincoln’s Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months that Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War":
"Robert Lincoln told a friend decades later that his father stayed up this entire night. Why the younger Lincoln waited so long to reveal that tantalizing fact is unknown. But, if true, what a cinematic scene it suggests, especially from the vantage point of 150 years of history. There is Lincoln, our mythic Lincoln--whoever that Lincoln may really be--alone in his cold, dark study in what was likely the first time in a long time when he could permit himself the luxury of concentration. While we do not know for certain about this particular night, Tad usually fell asleep in his father's study, and eventually Lincoln would pick up the boy and carry him to bed. But once Lincoln was alone and settled into the enveloping silence, what went through his mind? Robert Lincoln said his mother, before she retired, repeated her opposition to the proclamation. But even then, Lincoln, in reply, had not revealed his intentions. He simply paced, pausing once in a while to read a few favorite verses from the Bible and to gaze through the White House window at the night sky....
"What is now heralded as one of the greatest acts in the advancement of human liberty, an act that christened Lincoln the Great Emancipator, that brought men and women to their knees as if he were divinely touched, was...in front of him. Then,...using a steel pen with a wood shaft that he had nervously chewed, Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States, signed the Emancipation Proclamation."
I can only imagine the emotion of being in that room.