Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Taking Note

"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."

Pat and I stood silently at the spot where Union soldiers from Maine saved the United States of America. It was the top of a little knoll, overlooking fields surrounding a thoroughly normal, thoroughly rural town in Pennsylvania. Once, over one hundred fifty years ago Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain, professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College (pronounced Bow-den), a colonel in the 20th Maine, called for his men to fix bayonets. Out of ammunition, they would charge the guns of the advancing Confederates with nothing but a glorified spear in their hands.

The moment is stirringly recreated in the movie Gettysburg. Jeff Daniels, eyes ablaze, hollers the command as though the fate of human freedom itself was at stake.

Of course it was.

One and a half centuries ago today a tall lawyer from Illinois, the sixteenth president of the United States, stood to deliver a speech dedicating a military graveyard in Gettysburg. It lasted barely two minutes, almost an afterthought by 19th Century standards. The Civil War would rage on for 18 exhausting months, consuming many more thousands in its terrible wake. At the end, disparate views of what America means came back together, imperfectly as always, and began the long journey home from war.

A very different end might have arisen were it not for the bravery on Little Round Top. The America we know, argue over, take hopelessly for granted - the freedoms we cherish and fight for still - might have been extinguished, perhaps never to return. President Lincoln suggested that the world would "little note, nor long remember" his words. History has proven him wrong. One hundred fifty years ago today President Lincoln voiced a charge that echos mightily, a call to a different kind of arms. 

"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."

True then. True today.

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