I had an opportunity to spend the day yesterday visiting Gettysburg National Military Park, including the new Visitor Center which opened in 2008. The features of the visitor center include the film “A New Birth of Freedom”, skillfully narrated by Morgan Freeman; the restored “Battle of Gettysburg” cyclorama (a spectacular 377-foot painting, originally completed in 1884); and an excellent museum of Civil War history and artifacts. I rarely encounter a film which is able to touch me on such an emotional level as did “A New Birth of Freedom”. Similarly, no conflict in our nation’s history affects me in the same way as our Civil War, not because it was fought on our own soil but because it pitted Americans against Americans, brothers against brothers.
There is no question that the full effects of Reconstruction took an entire century, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that we still have a long way to go. Touring the battlefields afterward, one is overwhelmed by the volume of human sacrifice and the determination that we all share when we defend whatever it is that we feel is right. Wrong as they were, and ignoring the racism that was fundamental to their cause, even the Confederates must be respected for their willingness to die for their beliefs. Rather than tallying the casualties of North and South, I think that it is far more fitting to honor the fact that over 50,000 Americans died, were injured, or went missing in the battlefields of Gettysburg over the course of three days in 1863. When visiting The Wheatfield, The Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, and the other sites that forever changed the course of history, the thoughts behind the words of President Abraham Lincoln become crystal clear: “… 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.”
On the day of my visit, our federal government was being threatened with an economic shutdown, as the result of differences of opinion among Americans, most notably the elected representatives in Congress who act on our behalf. Regardless of the outcome of Congressional action or inaction, the park employees at Gettysburg were committed to keeping this historic treasure fully operational – as they had done on the occasions of two previous government shutdowns. Those park employees understand the importance of learning from history far better than our elected officials could ever pretend.
It is crucial to our survival as a nation that we resolve our differences through civil discourse and never again allow our differences to escalate to the point of physical conflict. Those self-proclaimed, modern-day “patriots” who audaciously speak of exercising their “Constitutional rights” – or at least their interpretations thereof – need to take a soul-searching trip to Gettysburg. The grain in The Wheatfield and the stream that runs through Devil’s Den did not take on the color of weak tea, but rather the color of the blood of the Americans who we must continually insure will never have died in vain.