McCool: What Gettysburg means to America today
At the sound of a booming signal cannon, the battle line stepped from the woods and into the open fields along Seminary Ridge. Thousands strong, they faced the massed hordes on Cemetery Ridge a mile away across open terrain. The church spires in the Pennsylvania village of Gettysburg could be seen in the distance through the shimmering heat.
But the date was not July 3, 1863; it was last week.
As part of the battle's sesquicentennial, the National Park Service organized a "Pickett's Charge Commemorative March" across the same ground trod by 13,000 Confederate soldiers exactly 150 years before. Thousands showed up, forming a stout line of tourist-soldiers that extended for almost a mile. Re-enactors in period uniforms, with flags flying and drums beating, dressed the lines.
What motivated all these people to brave the oppressive heat and keep alive the memory of a time when Americans slaughtered each other at an ungodly rate and our nation nearly disintegrated?
When the American Civil War began, the country was only 85 years old and democracy was stilled considered an "experiment." The despots and kings who ruled most of the world predicted we would fail for the simple reason that democracy is dependent on the concept of a loyal opposition that those who lose an election will remain in the body politic and work for a different result the next time around.
The Southern states did not do that, opting to leave the Union rather than abide by the election of a "Black Republican," as they called Lincoln and his abolitionist allies. Democracy itself was at stake.
It was a time when too many people chose to listen to the most extreme elements of society rather than attempt to understand each other and focus on common interests. Surely there is a lesson in that for today's atmosphere of polarized politics.
The tens of thousands of people who descended upon the peaceful Pennsylvania town were there for many reasons. Some wanted to honor those who fought in America's bloodiest war; nearly 800,000 died, according to the latest research. In proportion, that would be about 15 million people today.
Others came because they are still fighting the war. Some insist the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery; for them, reality is simply too bitter a pill to swallow. Many people were there because they love America the Union and they want our history remembered and preserved.
Nearly everyone there seemed to have a detailed knowledge of the battle. One could walk down the sidewalk or sit in a restaurant and be surrounded by spirited discussions about which generals won or lost the battle. It seems that, when it comes to the Civil War, there are more Monday-morning quarterbacks than the day after a Super Bowl. The crowds were enormous, demonstrating that Americans care about their heritage and are proud of what we have endured as a people.
The Civil War is still important today because it fundamentally altered who we are as a nation, even though many of the issues that provoked the war are still salient: race relations, the balance of power between the states and the federal government, the burden of taxes. These issues still divide us, but the single most important issue in the war, slavery, was settled with a fierce finality, and the nation could finally live up to its creed that all men are created equal.
As Lincoln put it, we were given a new birth of freedom. Something that profoundly just and laudable should never be forgotten, especially given the price paid in sons, husbands and fathers by the families that bore the loss.
During all the ceremonies, speeches, and battlefield walks, the Park Service repeatedly reminded us that this event was a commemoration, not a celebration.
We should honor the fallen, protect the sacred ground upon which they fell, and study the actions of our favorite historical figures. But we must also keep in mind that the Civil War was the result of a stunning failure of politics with tragic consequences.
As a nation, we are all better off when we choose dialogue over violence, compromise over conflict, understanding over intolerance. That is the true essence of what Lincoln called "government of the people, by the people, for the people."
Daniel McCool is a professor of political science at the University of Utah.