(Last in a series)
I can’t help but think that Lincoln got part of it backwards.
Or rather, we have.
Let me clarify.
Four months after the battle, Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate a national cemetery. His brief address there would be among the greatest ever spoken.
We all know it, we all have read it, and we all have had to recite it at one time or another. It’s part of our national voice.
I can’t help but pause at the phrase, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
These days, I’m afraid we have that part backwards. We forget plenty.
Since becoming involved in a re-enactment group 16 years ago, I have presented numerous programs at different schools. My first questions to students are usually why and when was the Civil War fought and who fought it.
Answers have included independence, the 1940s and the British.
OK. I can excuse elementary kids. But I had to shake my head when one young teacher admitted she didn’t know much about it herself.
At other programs adults have made similar baffling confessions.
I understand not everyone has my interests, and that’s a good thing. But my point is the teaching of history has been terribly slighted in recent years. In an era of teaching for standardized tests, history has too often become, well, history.
Just the other night on “60 Minutes,” author/historian David McCullough warned that we are raising a generation that has become “history-illiterate.”
That’s sad. And it’s troubling, especially when it comes to understanding the Civil War. Its lessons are too vital, because the issues at its center are still with us 150 years later.
And in many ways the battle continues.
• • •
“Are you going to fight the war again this year?” a coworker asks as each summer approaches. “Yes,” I reply. “The rebels keep coming back.”
At least twice a year I make my way to Gettysburg to either attend a re-enactment in July or march at Remembrance Day in November.
Remembrance Day commemorates Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and is an autumn weekend of period dancing, memorial services and a giant parade. However one recent event will be remembered for something else.
While hundreds of re-enactors lined up at the high school grounds for the start of the parade, a young man walked past wearing an unusual hat; it was a sock monkey, that silly little doll with big red lips made from a pair of brown hunting socks.
“Hey, check out the sock monkey,” one amused re-enactor yelled.
“Yeah,” another smirked. “Looks like the one we have in the White House.”
And no, he wasn’t a Confederate.
I would never do such a thing because it isn’t in me, but a part of me, the tiniest part of me, wanted to hit him over the head with my musket. (Not to kill him, mind you, just to knock some sense into him.)
That’s an awful admission on my part, I know, but I was angry, and I’m still angry, not because of my politics, but because it was such an ugly, stupid, racist thing to say.
I didn’t confront him about the remark, that’s not in me either. I guess I was just too stunned.
It’s naïve of me to have been so. Racism, after all, has been a part of America since its beginning, like original sin.
But what surprised me most of all is that it came from someone who should know what the Civil War and Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg were about, correcting a terrible wrong.
He probably skipped class that day.
That has been the course of America since the Civil War: confronting wrongs, many of our own making, and correcting them: racism, inequality, and threats to human decency. Ours is a journey of continually changing its ways, ultimately moving to what is right, but not before encountering a lot of resistance and strife.
Lincoln was the first to understand America’s course. He told us so in elegant words for the ages. “Now, we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Were he to speak those words to us today, they would still apply.
America is still fighting the Civil War. Thank God we have moved beyond cannon and massed charges, but we fight a war of division nonetheless.
When gay people strive to achieve their rights as Americans, we are fighting the Civil War.
When women are still paid considerably less than men for doing the same jobs, we are fighting the Civil War.
When we have to decide who can and cannot become Americans, we are fighting the Civil War.
When we place more importance on corporations than on the people who work for them, we are fighting the Civil War.
When a central government is met with distrust by groups that hide their paranoia under the guise of “freedom,” we are fighting the Civil War.
When that same government, on the other hand, justifies domestic spying for our own safety, we are fighting the Civil War.
When the country’s first African-American president is spoken of with racist words in this “enlightened land,” we are still fighting the Civil War.
It’s imperative of us to learn its lessons, for we are continually tested.
As strange as it sounds, I find hope from studying the Civil War. That tragedy was as bad as it could ever get, and we have never returned to it. We never will.
And if we can survive such a crisis, as we have for 150 years, we can meet and get past all challenges mentioned above and others to come.
It depends on what direction we take when we approach the crossroads.
Herald Page Designer Richard Young of Jamestown is a Civil War re-enactor who is spending the anniversary week in Gettysburg doing just that.