To Honor Lincoln and Our Country

Looking back through the veil of time to July 1863:

“Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee concentrated his army around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, upon the approach of Union Gen. George G. Meade’s forces. On July 1, Confederates drove Union defenders through Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill. The next day, Lee struck the flanks of the Union line, resulting in severe fighting at Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill. Southerners gained ground but failed to dislodge the Union host. On the morning of July 3rd, fighting raged at Culp’s Hill with the Union regaining its lost ground. That afternoon, after a massive artillery bombardment, Lee attacked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge and was repulsed with heavy losses in what is known as Pickett’s Charge. Lee’s second invasion of the North had failed.

“51,000 soldiers from both armies were killed, wounded, captured or missing in the three-day battle. Four months after the battle, President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for Gettysburg’s Soldiers National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic speech.”

I reprint that excerpt from 150 years after the battle of Gettysburg colored the ground red with blood. Families lost everything dear to them, including one another as they found themselves on opposing sides. The memory descends the decades.

When visiting Gettysburg, where so much horror took place, one becomes overwhelmed by the quiet, as if a dome of silence encapsulates the space. Visitors speak in hushed tones and walk slowly. What do we absorb in this place of hallowed ground? Is it the enormity of what humans can do to one another in the name of their cause? Is it the lengths we will go to when our belief systems mandate the ultimate sacrifice? Or, in this case, was it the absolute necessity to crush a system that set one class of person aside for use as instruments of commerce: slavery for profit? Maybe it is all of these things combined.

The Civil War swept along every man, woman and child in its wake. It consumed our nation and through the throbbing pain of war brought about the end to commercial slavery in this country. Yes, there were many other nuances to the Civil War; yes, all slavery did not end completely when the North won, but it was the right beginning to its end. Amen.

As I read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, spoken to commemorate that field of battle as a final resting place, the words are fresh if just a little stilted to my modern eyes and ears. However, they could be words spoken now in the Middle East, in the Sixties in Vietnam, in the Forties in France, Germany or the Pacific Islands. The words are to remind us “someone has given their all.”

July 4, our American Independence Day, is another hallmark in human history purchased through bloodshed. I guess that is just the way we are built, physical battles versus verbal exchange. I wonder: Is that the only way to win? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m proud of being American in spite of all our missteps, our sometimes over-zealous efforts to help other nations, our willingness to sacrifice our young for the freedom of oppressed people in other countries, and let’s not forget, feeding disparate populations.

Each occasion we have to celebrate our great, young nation makes me ponder what the founders would think of us today. Would they be pleased with what we have done with the gift of freedom they fought so hard to bring about and preserve? I think so. Our nation is not perfect, but it is so much better than many other places around the globe. Can I get a witness?

Our experiment in self-governing continues. It should, in my opinion, continue to evolve and not stagnate due to apathy or a rigid inability to accept that changes may be needed. In our little town, we can exercise our right as American citizens by participating in government, helping to create an even better place to live. We just have to be willing to get involved.

And while thinking that change is important, I’m old-fashioned too. A few years ago, I took my dad to a Veteran’s Day Celebration at Old Hammondtown School. Dad received the Bronze Star for his actions during the invasion of Normandy and subsequent participation in the liberation of France. I wish I knew more, but I don’t. That bothers me. Due to a fire in Oklahoma at a federal records facility, hundreds of thousands of military documents were forever lost, including my dad’s.

But that day at the school as Dad tried to follow along as the school band played patriotic music, while various speakers spoke of the sacrifices our military made, how they saved our way of life, with veterans dressed in their uniforms honoring those who never came home – Dad’s tears flowed. He didn’t understand everything, but he understood enough. And then one of the most moving speakers of the event came forward. George Randall recited extemporarily Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was breathtaking. His is the only speech I remember from that day and his evoked the grandest applause.

That Randall could so eloquently speak Lincoln’s words and that the words could be so full of meaning even today moved me to tears. Yep, there we were: Dad and I, tearfully enjoying the experience, acknowledging heroes known and unknown. Thank you, George Randall, for that fond memory. Thank you also for making me think about Lincoln’s words as never before, with deep appreciation of just what freedom has cost.

The 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg is July 1 through 3. An excerpt from notes the following: “On June 1, 1865, Senator Charles Sumner commented on what is now considered the most famous speech by President Abraham Lincoln. In his eulogy on the slain president, he called it a ‘monumental act.’ He said Lincoln was mistaken that ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.’ Rather, the Bostonian remarked, ‘The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it.’”

Most of us live small, quiet lives built around family and friends. Lincoln would be proud of that. It is, after all, what our American Dream is all about – living peaceful lives as we pursue our hopes, dreams and opportunities. It is called freedom. Although we citizens of this great country are divided in many ways, I think we’d agree that President Lincoln got it right in the Gettysburg Address:

“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.”

By Marilou Newell

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