Gettysburg battle's 'mighty current' recalled



GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- As more than 5,000 people sat beneath a dusky sky Sunday on a field where 150 years ago one of the most bloody and desperate battles in American history would change the tide of the Civil War, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tied the outcome of that battle to the civil rights movement of a century later, to the women's rights movement and to last week's Supreme Court decision upholding the right to legalize same-sex marriage.

Ms. Kearns Goodwin, whose book on Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet, "Team of Rivals," inspired Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln," was the headliner in a National Parks Service ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The commemoration was named for Lincoln's words about "A New Birth of Freedom," and her point was that the freedom had to be claimed slowly by each generation.

"As was true in the struggle for women's rights and civil rights, gay activists had to fight long and hard for that decision," she said.

She quoted Robert F. Kennedy, who said that every time someone acts to improve the lives of others he "sends forth a tiny ripple of hope" that joins with others and forms a current that "will sweep down the mightiest laws of oppression."

"As we gather together to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, we can look upon these graves knowing that each of these soldiers who rest here tonight sent their own ripples of hope and that those ripples built a mighty current that swept the scourge of slavery from our land, giving our beloved country, as Abraham Lincoln so magnificently promised, a new birth of freedom," she said.

The program would conclude with a candlelight procession to the nearby military cemetery, with 3,512 graves of Union soldiers, that Lincoln dedicated with his Gettysburg Address. "New Birth of Freedom" was an all-star presentation. Former ABC news anchor Charles Gibson was master of ceremonies. Country star Trace Adkins, the great-great grandson of a Confederate soldier, sang the national anthem in a thick, Southern voice.

The centerpiece was Voices of the Battle, a multi-media theatrical presentation with actors delivering the words of real leaders, soldiers and civilians who experienced the battle. It was held on a slope just above the tiny house where Union commanding Gen. George Meade had his headquarters. The enormous domed monument to the Pennsylvania soldiers who served at Gettysburg was visible beyond. Off to the right was the copse of trees marking the farthest point that Confederate soldiers reached as they fell in Pickett's Charge.

"Our programs are not a celebration, but are the thoughtful commemoration of the people who were caught up in this profoundly significant battle," said Robert Kirby, superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park.

Perhaps 250 attended the rededication, many of them members of the Sons of Union Veterans, who had organized the event, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who joined them in it. Among the former was Elmer "Bud" Atkinson, 88, who had been a teenaged escort for the elderly Civil War veterans at the dedication in 1938.

Mr. Atkinson, whose great-grandfather fought for the Union, came from a family with a passionate commitment to the Sons of Union Veterans. He was too young, he said, to understand the threat of war in Germany, or to comprehend the mingled doubt and hope with which the president must have paid tribute to peace and reconciliation.

Mr. Atkinson was still in his teens when he joined the Army after Pearl Harbor. He would fight through the Battle of the Bulge.

"At the time we came home, we thought wars were all over. You think that every war will be the last. It never is," said the retired Philadelphia firefighter, who served 20 post-war years in the Army Reserves.

He knows men who re-enact his own battles, and has been invited to attend World War II re-enactments, but he dedicated himself to the remembrance of those who came before him.

Remembrance and reconciliation were at the heart of the keynote at the Peace Light by Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, commandant of the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle. Gen. Cucolo, a veteran of wars in Bosnia and Iraq, spoke with emotion of the many times he prayed beside the bodies of young soldiers in Iraq before they were transported home in caskets.

He vowed that their deaths would not be in vain, that he would live in a way that honored their sacrifice and that they would never be forgotten. The Peace Light Memorial, he said, was built to keep such memories alive while achieving reconciliation for the sake of future peace. It was first dreamed of a quarter century earlier when veterans in blue and gray at the 50th reunion shook hands across walls over which they had once tried to kill each other.

The nation healed slowly after the Civil War, "but the veterans and the sons of veterans led by example," he said. "If those who fought each other and carried the searing memories of the abject carnage of war -- if they could clasp hands and forgive and unite for a common purpose, then why can't we all?

He told the sons of Union and Confederate veterans: "You show others throughout the world what is possible with forgiveness, with reconciliation. You light the darkness of ignorance and show the world that it has been done and it can be done."

Gary Cartwright, 59, a tourist from Park Ridge, Ill., was disappointed so few visitors heard that speech.

He reflected on Gen. Cucolo's words about standing next to the bodies of his fallen soldiers and promising that they would never be forgotten.

"That is why I wish more people were there to hear him. Because obviously people are forgetting," he said.

Small crowds were not a problem for "New Birth of Freedom," where spectators sprawled beyond the 4,000 chairs.

Bob Taylor, a self-described history buff from Charleroi, has visited Gettysburg many times, but said the 150th anniversary was special.

"You don't celebrate it, but you appreciate how these young guys, from both sides really, did. They gave up their lives for what they believed in. They were such young guys and they walked right into those guns. It was a different time."

Meghan Troxler 25, from Reading, Mass., carried her candle Sunday night to the heart of the cemetery, where each grave was lit by the golden glow of a luminaria. She stood next to a section of unknown graves, labeled with numbers in the 900s as a soldier played Taps.

"I really thought about all these men who fought for my freedom. Even though I'm not African American. I'm white. It's very humbling . It reminds me not to take for granted what I have in the United States," she said.

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. First Published July 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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