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Stanley Crouch: Why Gettysburg still resonates

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A few days ago was the anniversary of one of our nation’s greatest moments. It was because of the high level of consciousness that rung out from one of our most forward-looking leaders.

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That is partially why George Will was profoundly correct when he said, on the DVD interviews and reflections about Ken Burns’ “The Civil War,” that the foundation of the United States and drafting of its Constitution are the most important events in human history. American democracy is the strongest set of evolving policies about self-rule ever conceived —including an amendment process that has enabled the nation to redeem itself from mistakes written into the law.

I was also interviewed for that DVD set. I said about Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address — which rang out 150 years ago and was delivered in less than 300 words — that it was his crystalized understanding of our Civil War’s meaning. The speech was not understood initially on those terms; the president thought it was a failure.

I went on to say how Lincoln proved that great slaughter can lead to a great understanding of humane essence and human possibilities. Great slaughter usually results in so much pain and loss that it only guarantees the tragic resonance of an inner bitterness. That bitterness leads to the delusional vision of someday avenging those moments of deepest sorrow.

Gettysburg was, of course, the loss that surely pushed the Confederate Army over the cliff and largely made its defeat inevitable to the Union forces commanded by Ulysses S. Grant, a failed tanner who became much better in the art of war, figuring out how to modernize the killing and imprisoning of the enemy.

Grant understood delayed victory — how to beat the enemy over the long haul. He did that through naval blockades that isolated the Confederacy from fresh supplies, then through prisoner-of-war camps, guaranteeing that he could either use the troops to win a battle or wait until the end of the war to see those men again.

It was by employing some of those tactics of warfare that Grant and his men won at Vicksburg, where men, women and children were shelled and ate their livestock until they surrendered. He also sent William Sherman to take down Atlanta and Phil Sheridan to wipe out replenishments coming from the Shenandoah Valley.

As we learn from Garry Wills’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” the commander in chief of the troops that won the Civil War did something the troops could not through their brutal and necessary violence. Lincoln took the consciousness of this nation far beyond the dangerous blood sport to a place where the substance of democracy was better understood.

By calling, with plaintive and poetic elegance, for a “new birth of freedom,” Lincoln proved himself the most purely brilliant man at the top since Thomas Jefferson. He delivered a speech that was no less than a conceptual revamping of the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln realized the deep dream at the nub of abolition; he understood what had made the abolition movement so different from the very beginning. As the Quakers like Anthony Benezet and Benjamin Rush had declared many years before the Civil War, anyone who believed in Eden as the beginning of humanity could not then believe that one group could or should reduce another to chattel slavery.

This was an ethic rooted in radical Christianity. Long before DNA was ever discovered, it embraced the mysterious substance of human equality.

These are very different times, when the threats to equality are far less frontal, when racism itself is far more subdued. But we still need Lincoln, the words he spoke at Gettysburg and the spirit of abolition. They still carry the bittersweet, optimistic quintessence of the American spirit. And we are hearing them pealing all over the world: They announced that a new world was coming, and women, particularly, know it, which is why they are busy stepping free of the old rules.

Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at crouch.stanley@gmail.com.

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