By Tom Ehrich
Late one summer afternoon, I pulled our family minivan into Gettysburg, PA. As other tourists were heading home, we walked onto the battlefield where America was formed.
My imagination was firing hot. I could see the carnage of the Civil War’s pivotal battle. I could hear the moans of wounded men lying along the ridge where cannon fired point-blank at an advancing charge that came within twelve feet of succeeding.
I read the plaques describing each moment of the battle. and commemorating a nation’s fallen sons.
And of course I read President Lincoln’s address — words I had memorized as a child and now recited again as perhaps the truest testimony to the American dream.
Our dream isn’t about wealth or power. It is about freedom, democracy and justice. It is about rejecting any form of bondage, in the belief that oppression, while often convenient and profitable, is always wrong.
I told my boys that they were born in the state — Indiana — that lost more men in the Civil War than any state in the Union. And they now lived in the state — North Carolina — that suffered the greatest losses in the Confederacy.
Neither state had an economic or cultural stake in the war. They were farmers, not industrialists or slave owners. But above all else they were patriots, Americans who believed in the ideals of this nation.
One of our boys had gone to camp in eastern Carolina. The young men of that town fought at Gettysburg. Nearly every one of them died in those blood-soaked fields.
One hundred and fifty years after the Battle of Gettysburg, Americans are still divided. The rich still prey on the poor. Religion still sounds a call to hatred. The sons and daughters of slaves are still waiting for the freedoms and opportunities promised to all Americans. People still take up arms against their neighbors. Blood soaks our classrooms and college campuses and city streets.
I think Lincoln would be as sad today as he was in 1863. A nation that should stand for more keeps falling short of its ideals.
But we also keep memorizing the Gettysburg Address and Dr. King’s speech 100 years later. We keep saluting our nation’s flag, singing about a “Sweet land of liberty,” yearning to be a “land of the free and home of the brave,” where “spacious skies and amber waves of grain” shine hope for all who yearn to “breathe free.”
Some day we will get it right. And that promise keeps drawing the “wretched refuse” to our shores.