While the ghost walks and re-enactments in Gettysburg rage on, eminent presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is under fire this week from critics who say she missed the point of the great battle.
At her keynote address Sunday night for the battle's 150th anniversary, Goodwin drew a straight line from the sanguine fields of Cemetery Hill to the struggles of Selma and Stonewall. No, not Stonewall the great Confederate general killed at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Stonewall the 1969 riot in New York City's Greenwich Village that was a turning point in the struggle for gay and lesbian equality.
Gays and lesbians at Gettysburg, the turning point of the Civil War? No wonder some are outraged, accusing Goodwin of politicizing the anniversary of a battle that changed American history.
But I think Lincoln biographer Goodwin got it exactly right.
In a brief interview with local media before her speech, Goodwin said it was Lincoln and his November address that made Gettysburg special. There were lots of battles arguably as important militarily.
But Lincoln makes moral sense of the bloody chaos of war in those miraculous 272 words at Gettysburg, and he doesn't even mention the battle by name.
Instead, Lincoln tells us that the Union dead fell for a nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal. The dead at Gettysburg have given us "a new birth of freedom," Lincoln says, but there is unfinished work for us, the living, to accomplish.
Lincoln's enemies accused him of politicizing Gettysburg then, just as the opponents of equality for gays and lesbians accuse Goodwin now. Then, as now, the nation struggles to live up to Lincoln's transcendent challenge.
For nearly 15 years, I have read and walked on the hallowed ground of the battlefield as a journalist and as an American passionately interested in military history. I took the licensed guide exam a dozen years ago as a personal challenge and scored in the top 15 percent. I can take you through the five tactical evolutions of the Wheatfield, the least understood and most complicated part of the battle.
But none of that is the real meaning of Gettysburg. Goodwin's long line of soldiers for human freedom — from the women suffragettes to the marchers for civil rights, to the gays and lesbians who demand equality today — are the true legacy of those bloody fields.
My wife and I were married at Little Round Top on July 2, 2001, the 138th anniversary of the defense of that celebrated hill. We vowed fidelity to union and promised to fulfill the unfinished work of equal partnership. Why would anyone want to deny that opportunity to anyone else?
Some find irony in Lincoln's observation that the world would little note nor long remember the words at Gettysburg, but could never forget what was done there. The Gettysburg Address is still memorized in schools worldwide, long after the strategy and tactics of soldiers have been forgotten. But Lincoln, like Goodwin, had it exactly right. At Gettysburg, the Great Emancipator reminds us we will be judged not by our words, but by our deeds.
Martin Luther King Jr. — a man, like Lincoln, of great words as well as great deeds — reminded us that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
The struggle for human freedom and dignity marches on, and Lincoln calls upon us all to be soldiers in that great war. In that larger sense the Battle of Gettysburg may never be wo — but a new birth of freedom always will be a living cause worth dying for.