That my first visit to the Lincoln memorial in 48 years would bring tears was unexpected. Yet on a sunny September Sunday in 2012, at the feet of his massive marble likeness, staring solemnly upon the chiseled words of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, salty drops dot my face.
There is poignancy simply in standing where I scampered a lifetime ago as an unknowing four-year-old. But, my tears this day are for something more immediate – at least for me. This moment, the text of our 16th President’s second inaugural speech, and especially his Gettysburg Address fall this day upon a heart still moved by a different visit two days prior.
I was in our nation’s capital at the end of a six-day, self-supported bicycle trip with two friends from Pittsburg by way of the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath trails. Nearing the end of our fourth day’s ride, we had detoured from the towpath to bike through Antietam National Battlefield. In the bloodiest single day of combat in American military history, the cornfields and dirt roads flanking Antietam Creek were stained with spilled blood of 22,717 Union and Confederate soldiers in 12 hours of bloody battle on September 17, 1862.
Riding silently through sacred cornfields, staring down the Sunken Road hence known as Bloody Lane, and crossing the Burnside Bridge, it was a sobering stop in our otherwise joyful journey. At the visitor center, I was touched by photos of President Lincoln on the battlefield following that horrific day. Especially moving were images of the President visiting wounded Confederate soldiers. In his face, I saw a pain and sadness I’d never really tried to imagine before. I pondered the anguished solitude of this man chosen by fate to lead a nation so divided men would willfully inflict such horrors on brothers, neighbors, and countrymen.
I felt deep, stirring empathy and compassion for a President forced to choose between unthinkable alternatives: wage civil war or abandon a young nation’s commitment to the inalienable right of equality. The specter of the former had too long stayed the nation from taking a stand on the latter. But, under Lincoln’s watch, an inevitable choice was finally at hand.
So it was I found myself moved to tears of compassion and reverence for the man in whose memorial I stood on that September morn not long ago.
Today, tragic events and an uneasy reaction have again scraped scabs from wounds never healed. In a nation not at peace with an issue that strained and nearly severed a union, some defiantly raise the Confederate Battle Flag as a proud sign of heritage.
A white Southerner born and raised in Atlanta, my ancestors fought for the Confederate States of America in the Civil War. I have forefathers before them who fought for American independence in the Revolutionary War. It’s an unescapable truth my antebellum ancestors fought against what our Colonial forbearers would die for less than a century earlier.
For proof, I need look no further than the “Cornerstone” speech delivered in 1861 by fellow Georgian and CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens, outlining founding principles of the new Confederacy.
The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
Not content to just affirm the South’s intent to perpetuate slavery, Stephens was adamant in declaring Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers wrong from the beginning in asserting “all men are created equal.” And, so he continued:
Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the ‘storm came and the wind blew.’
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “heritage” as “something possessed as a result of one’s natural situation or birth.” I was born in the South, which brings certain truths. But, I’m more careful when it comes to beliefs I choose to possess. I was born into freedom and enjoy inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I owe that ideal to Jefferson, but the enduring reality was secured at staggering cost by Lincoln and men who fought beneath the American flag – not a Confederate one.
Vice President Stephens left no doubt as to the white supremacist beliefs at the heart of the South’s secession and hostilities that triggered the Civil War.
In his 1863 Gettysburg address, President Lincoln was equally clear about the cause justifying such national sacrifice. We committed his speech to memory in high school, but I repeat it here to stand in stark contrast to the words of Stephens:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 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.
We should honor and respectfully remember every one of the 620,000 lives – men in blue and in gray – lost in our tragic Civil War. Such was their fate to be born into a time when the unresolved differences of mankind and the interests of others placed them in the cross hairs of history.
I honor them. I mourn their loss felt profoundly in cornfields at Antietam where senseless slaughter haunts the landscape and sadness rolls heavily down hillsides like canon fire.
I’ll not begrudge any man or woman the right to hold or display the Confederate Battle Flag as he or she sees fit. But, I beseech you to find within you the reverence not to hoist that banner in defiance or anger. Regardless of its meaning to you, there was and remains a cause tied to it refuting a central ideal upon which our nation was founded.
Rather than relive divisions which nearly extinguished the light of liberty, in the memory of all who died, let us heed the humble words of a martyred servant answering history’s unwelcome call. Together, may we be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” Let us stand united and “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
To all who sacrificed before us, this at least we owe.
Image: Lincoln Memorial by Daniel Chester French licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license via Wikimedia Commons.