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Blog: Reimagining Gettysburg

Of Gettysburg and COVID-19: Plus Reagan, Near, Bates, Guthrie, Lincoln, Mandela & Princess Diana

April 14, 2020

Gettysburg, Pa.

Ghost tours have long been a cottage industry in Gettysburg, and for once, the supernatural hits the mark. COVID-19 has turned a tourist town ordinarily bustling this time of year—with schoolchildren, tour buses, and families—into a ghost town.

Closed up tight except for grocery stores, pharmacies, take-out food, and Walmart. All weirdly happening during the rebirth that is springtime in Pennsylvania, as grass grows, animals romp, and birds sing.

This season of life juxtaposed with COVID-19 death.

Pondered every day, as I head out for permitted strolls to pass the time during stay-at-home orders. Dodging other human beings as part of social distancing, while walking beneath trees with fragrant blossoms right across the street from my own physician's clinic, now closed off with orange cones to test and treat COVID-19 patients. Slightly surreal.

While strolling, counting myself among the lucky to inhale the sweet smell of those blossoms, mindful that thousands of Americans daily are losing their lung capacity. Watching a high-tech but unprepared nation that I love, scramble to build or buy ventilators to preserve human life. Startling.  

Thinking whether in my lifetime America crossed over from justifiable pride at its success to a misguided arrogance. Humbled now as the focal point of a global pandemic. Unfamiliar place.

Haunting for those living here in Gettysburg, a small community known around the world for the deaths and injury that happened here in the pivotal battle of the Civil War, memorialized by hundreds of monuments around Gettysburg National Military Park.

Strangely weird parallels between the Battle of Gettysburg and COVID-19. Human tragedy starting through accidental encounters. Smart but also terrible decisions by fallible leaders. Imperfect information. Disease and death pervasive—seemingly random. Caregivers rushing in, jeopardizing their own safety and health to lessen the suffering of others. Grief at loss of loved ones. Memorial services sparsely attended. Enduring hardship ahead for so many.

Lessons of Gettysburg are taught regularly to visitors through a battle and Lincoln. But there's no one here to listen to them now. And questions spinning around in my mind as president of the Gettysburg Foundation whether this pandemic will push contemporary worries so far into the future that Gettysburg's prize place in American history is steadily relegated to the ages.

After leaving the U.S. House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) opined that it might take "something cataclysmic" for Americans to overcome their anger and hostility toward one another, some "intervening event for Americans to realize that first [and foremost], we are Americans."  (Tim Alberta, "John Boehner Unchained," Politico, November/December 2017).

COVID-19 may prove to be that cataclysmic event, but if so, it's a pitiful way to stage a national comeback.  

Watching an America that has strayed so far from Enlightenment principles brought to us from Europe by our Founding Fathers—ideas as simple as reason and scientific discovery. Impulses famously receiving expression a generation ago when Americans enthusiastically supported the math and physics infrastructure necessary to place a man on the moon, not because it is easy, as President Kennedy so famously said, but because it is hard. This can-do American attitude, this self-confidence, chipped away little-by-little in the decades since. Invincible America no more. Politicians hugging flags or pounding their chests, hoping to convince themselves or us otherwise. But we feel it.

Now in the autumn of my life, coming to terms with the unthinkable—that my own generation of Baby Boomers is responsible for letting slip away the great American democratic experiment in human history, rather than hand it off in tip-top shape to our children. Now thinking we don't quite recognize that fact, or if we do, we won't admit it. Watching some of my Boomer brothers and sisters on television blast younger generations as ignorant and self-indulgent, crossing over a line from constructive elderly guidance to merciless criticism, and with a god-awful smugness. Their critique about a sense of entitlement in a world of plenty often resonating with me, but in the back of my head a powerful voice telling me that my fellow Boomers are not even listening to the justifiable worries young people are voicing, but instead, blindly rushing to judge them.

Hoping I am flat wrong in this, of course. Hoping there remains a path forward that preserves prosperity and liberty, for America figured out how to successfully wed free-market capitalism with democracy in a way no other nation has, and for longer than any other in human history.

And thus, remaining hopeful about the future despite current misgivings. 

Passing time on my social distancing walks by thinking about admirable traits of famous people, hoping these might resurface as America stages a social and political comeback once we are on the other side of a virulent virus.

Laughing to myself in this late stage of life that the traits I so admire are tied exclusively to people now all deceased, save one. Not knowing some new cast of characters. Demonstrating the ignorance Boomers readily ascribe to Millennials. Humbling.

Here's an abbreviated list of desirable traits matched up with people who demonstrated them.  

  • The eternal optimism of Ronald Reagan, who believed America's best days lie ahead and that it would be foolish to trade our "tomorrows for our yesterdays," words in his last public speech.
  • Three songwriters next. The acceptance of all others beautifully expressed by songwriter Holly Near in her 1978 anthem, "We're Singing for our Lives." The unabashed respect for American exceptionalism, written by Katharine Lee Bates after a cross-country trip where she saw with her own eyes, "America the Beautiful." The subtle inclusivity of western folk singer Woodie Guthrie, whose famous refrain, "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land" quietly teaches us to remember that America is our land, but someone else's too. We share it.  
  • Abraham Lincoln—our Gettysburg staple—for his unmistakable personal humility, his resolve to plant his feet and stand his ground in pursuit of right, and his profound compassion, expressed elegantly in his famous phrase, "with malice toward none, with charity for all."
  • The forgiveness of Nelson Mandela. Imprisoned 27 years out of racist fears before inviting one of his jailers to dinner and another to his inauguration as South African president.  
  • And finally, the indescribable humanitarianism of Princess Diana, who circled the globe to support the sick or downtrodden among us, ranging from HIV/AIDS to leprosy, homelessness, landmine removal, and childhood cancer. As Elton John sang metaphorically at her funeral, Diana was a brightly lit candle to the world, prematurely extinguished.

Optimism, acceptance, respect, inclusivity, humility, resolve, compassion, forgiveness, and humanitarianism—a partial list of what Lincoln may have been thinking when in his First Inaugural Address, he called upon Americans to surface "the better angels of our nature."

Matthew C. Moen, Ph.D.