GETTYSBURG, Penn. — I’ve wanted to come here for years.
I have read a number of books about the epic Civil War battle on these rolling fields in southern Pennsylvania. I have watched movies. I have listened to historians talk about the soldiers and their lives. For me, coming to Gettysburg was more than a visit: it was a pilgrimage.
Still, I was unprepared.
I was not ready for the knee-buckling sense of history that I felt atop Seminary Ridge, where Robert E. Lee and his Army of the Northern Virginia made headquarters. I was not ready for the awe I felt standing in the footsteps of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—a college professor who led the 20th Maine Regiment as it held the left end of the Union line on Little Round Top. I was not ready for the intense sense of history that hangs over the rock wall that marks the high water mark of Pickett’s Charge on the final day, July 3, 1863—exactly 149 years ago today.
This is sacred ground.
Everywhere are monuments and markers: more than 850 on the battlefield. They invoke those who can no longer speak. As a people, we create monuments so that we might never forget the past.
Unfortunately, I think we have forgotten too much of what happened here—on the battlefield and in the words of Abraham Lincoln afterward.
In early July 1863, Union soldiers and Confederates met for three days of battle at Gettysburg, a small town roughly 120 miles west of Philadelphia. Robert E. Lee had brought his premier Confederate army into Union territory seeking a decisive battle to break the spirit of the nation’s people and president.
He found the battle, or it found him. When it was over, on July 3, at least 45,000 soldiers had been killed or wounded. To put that in perspective, 17,350 U.S. military personnel have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan during 11 years of fighting there, and 36,709 service members have been killed or wounded in Iraq since 2003.
Every death in war is terrible. At Gettysburg, the loss is too much to bear.
Four and a half months after the battle, on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln spoke here at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Lincoln’s words, now known as The Gettysburg Address, became part of the liturgy of great American speeches. The address is inscribed on one of the walls of the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC.
The speech lasted two minutes. Almost no one thought it special at the time.
Here it is, in its entirety:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
In the time it takes people these days to enter a Facebook update, Lincoln articulated what the United States of America, in its best moments, is about. I am moved by his opening words about liberty and equality and his closing words about government of the people, by the people, for the people. These call me, and us, to the better angels of our nature—a phrase he had used in his first Inaugural in 1861.
Today, Americans are so divided, so unwilling to see the good in our political opponents, so unable to agree upon a shared, common good. More than forty-five thousand American men died or were wounded over three days, 149 years ago, because their leaders could not, would not find a way forward that elevated everyone, together.
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee: show us some courage, move us, elevate us, call us to a better place together. It is for us, the living, to do this. Show us that the actions and words of Gettysburg echo in 2012.