Gettysburg Today

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It all happened 94 years ago, and all of ihe men who were there are dead now; but the ground today is just the same, the sun still slants down in late afternoon from the crest of the blue mountain wall to the west, and quaint, archaic statues mark the places where living men once stormed and shouted at one another … and, taking everything together, Gettysburg today is a place where gallant spirits still tell their story of high sacrifice and undying devotion. There is a cemetery, there are gentle ridges rolling unbroken toward the sunset, and here and there one can find spots where everything that is significant in the American dream speaks to today’s world with an undying voice.

You can visit Gettysburg now and follow paved roads, between neat stretches of lawn and woodland, with a great number of monuments marking the way, and if there are ghosts there they are very harmlessyoung Americans, dead nearly a century, AVhose presence is always felt but who are never in the least frightening. Across the wheat fields (there is the wheat field, where several thousand men died in an hour’s fight, and there are lesser fields of wheat, very quiet now on land where the casualty lists were somewhat smaller), and peach orchards, and tangled hillocks of rock and scrubby trees, and burly hillsides covered with maples and beeches—across these the visitor can go without once hearing the terrible clamor of battle. Yet the battle was here and its presence is felt, and you cannot visit the place without feeling the echoes of what was once a proving ground for everything America believes in.

For Gettysburg was where we Americans came to grips with ourselves. On these Pennsylvania hills, fate once asked men of our flesh: Do you really mean it? Are you just coasting, or is the vision this land gave you something you are willing to die for? They died on these hills and fields in fantastic numbers, and the dying was not easy, but young men who would have preferred to live did die and this open, sunlit country remembers them, Northerners and Southerners alike.

We are a young country with the future still ahead of us, but we do have our shrines and Gettysburg is one of the greatest of them. It is great because it once brought us face to face with certain fundamentals. These still live with us; we passed one test, and by the story which the passing of that test tells us, we do not need to be afraid of anything that can happen in the future. The America of today was beaten into form on what are now the quiet, dreamy fields around this hilltop town in Pennsylvania.

—Bruce Catton