Of Civil War…
“We think we are wholly superior people,” said the Civil War historian Shelby Foote. The 50th and 75th Anniversaries of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg were poignant, inspiring moments. The words spoken of those occasions give cause to wonder. In the welter of emotions, have we forgotten what we need to remember?
“We may be given to meet again…”
We think we are wholly superior people. If we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we’d never have fought that Civil War. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.
“Who knows,” Berry Benson, a Gettysburg veteran asked, as his narrative drew towards its close, “Who knows but it may be given to us after this life to meet again in the old quarters, to play chess and draughts, to get up soon to answer the morning roll call, to fall in at the tap of the drum for drill and dress parade, and again hastily to don our war gear while the monotonous patter of the Long Roll summons us to battle.
“Who knows but again the old flags, ragged and torn, snapping in the wind, may face each other and flutter, pursuing and pursued, while the cries of victory fill a summer day? And after the battle, then the slain and wounded will arise. All will meet together under the two flags, all sound and well. And there will be talking and laughter and cheers. And all will say: Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?”
The Civil War “is not ‘was,’ it’s ‘is.'”
William Faulkner said once that history is not “was,” it’s “is.” And what we need to remember is that the Civil War “is” in the present, as well as the past.
The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes and a lost future also established a standard that will not mean anything until we finish the work.
“Under One Flag Now”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gettysburg, 3 July 1938:
On behalf of the people of the United States I accept this monument in the spirit of brotherhood and peace.
Immortal deeds and immortal words have created here at Gettysburg a shrine of American patriotism. We encompass “The last full measure of devotion” of many men and by the words in which Abraham Lincoln expressed the simple faith for which they died.
It seldom helps to wonder how a statesman of one generation would surmount the crisis of another. A statesman deals with concrete difficulties—with things which must be done from day to day. Not often can he frame conscious patterns for the far off future.
* * *
But the fullness of the stature of Lincoln’s nature and the fundamental conflict which events forced upon his Presidency invite us ever to turn to him for help.
For the issue which he restated here at Gettysburg seventy five years ago will be the continuing issue before this Nation so long as we cling to the purposes for which the Nation was founded—to preserve under the changing conditions of each generation a people’s government for the people’s good.
The task assumes different shapes at different times. Sometimes the threat to popular government comes from political interests, sometimes from economic interests, sometimes we have to beat off all of them together.
But the challenge is always the same—whether each generation facing its own circumstances can summon the practical devotion to attain and retain that greatest good for the greatest number which this government of the people was created to ensure.
Lincoln spoke in solace for all who fought upon this field; and the years have laid their balm upon their wounds. Men who wore the blue and men who wore the gray are here together, a fragment spared by time. They come here by the memories of old divided loyalties, but they meet here in united loyalty to a united cause which the unfolding years have made it easier to see.
All of. them we honor, not asking under which flag they fought then—thankful that they stand together under one flag now….
* * *
That is why Lincoln—commander of a people as well as of an army—asked that his battle end “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
To the hurt of those who came after him, Lincoln’s plea was long denied. A generation passed before the new unity became accepted fact.
In later years new needs arose. And with them new tasks, worldwide in their perplexities, their bitterness and their modes of strife. Here in our land we give thanks that, avoiding war, we seek our ends through the peaceful processes of popular government under the Constitution.
We are near to winning this battle. In its winning and through the years may we live by the wisdom and the humanity of the heart of Abraham Lincoln.
See also “Lehrman on Churchill and Lincoln.”