Living History

I spent yesterday with my wife and son at Gettysburg, site of one of the most significant battles of the Civil War. I’d been there before, but as with so many other things, the present circumstances in America cast experiences in a new light.

What was so striking was how clearly those at the time, and afterwards, saw the significance of those three days in July 1863 on the outskirts of a Pennsylvania farming town. You hear in in the journals of the combatants, in the scrupulous records and copious memorials that started not long after the end of the war and never stopped. And of course, you read it in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal 272-word address, delivered four months later before a crowd of 20,000, on the dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery.

Gettysburg was, after all, just the midpoint of a terrible war; a turning point, but not the decisive battle. It was partly the carnage: 50,000 casualties, nearly 20,000 dead or missing, in an engagement neither side intended. On Culp’s Hill, a million bullets were fired in a matter of hours, so many that the trees died of lead poisoning. But again, in a conflict that took over 600,000 lives, one of every 50 Americans, Gettysburg was just a blip.

So how does one know whether history has in our time reached a hinge? Who was Lincoln to say that he was commemorating not a battle between two armies, but a test of whether any nationconceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure? And today, who are we say that we face the question whether such a nation, now long enduring, can endure a little longer? Aren’t we just fighting about tax cuts and trade deficits and immigration policy and the normal stuff of politics?

Walking around Gettysburg, what’s striking is the ordinariness. The town is history made flesh, surrounded by American holy ground. Yet it’s just a town; the ridges where soldiers massed are just ridges; the fields where 5,000 men fell in Pickett’s Charge are just fields. Gettysburg is powerful even now because it represents an idea. As did the Union. As does the democratic (small “d”) process and the integrity of our republican (small “r”) institutions, even now.

Perhaps the world will little note, nor long remember what we say and do today. If we fight for our ideals, and for the memory of those who sacrificed so much to bring us here, we cannot be wrong.

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