This past week has been one filled with all the anticipation of a school boy awaiting a field trip as I made my way to the scene of the most significant battleground of the Civil War: Gettysburg. In preparation, I even read a chronicle of the Gettysburg Campaign written by Shelby Foote. You might remember him from the Ken Burns series on the Civil War. I had hoped to broadcast this morning from Cemetery Ridge, in sight of the hallowed ground of Pickett’s Charge where General Armistead breached the Union line but fell amid 6500 of his men who lay dead or wounded; or from the summit of Little Round Top where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain turned away five charges of the 15th Alabama Regiment, preserved a Union victory and earned the Medal of Honor.
A close friend of mine reminded me that the day doesn’t know what history will bring. In life, despite the long rumination of strategic thinking, we are frequently handed unique opportunities that must be acted upon in an instant. We react to the vision in our minds eye on instinct and intuition. In Gettysburg that hot and humid week in July 1863, leaders emerged from the crucible of conflict. Some were expected to lead and could not, others seized the moment and served to rally morale and exhort the most noble and courageous performance from their troops. All were expected to make a decision when minutes counted.
In the three day battle, over 50,000 Americans were killed, wounded, captured or missing. There is no period in American history outside of the Civil War that rivals the scale of human carnage. I was reminded that more than 620,000 soldiers died in those four years, nearly 2% of the US population. Today, such a percentage would claim 6 million lives. Gettysburg is a place to which all Americans should make a pilgrimage to begin to appreciate the sacrifice that Americans are willing to make for America.
This essay is not intended to be a lesson in military history. It is intended to remind us of two things as far as American history is concerned. First, all challenges must be placed in proper perspective. Those at Gettysburg were fighting to preserve a way of life and were willing to place their destiny firmly in the hands of their leaders. Secondly, the most notable leaders emerge amid the great and desperate challenges laid before them. They place country before self.
Let’s fast forward a century and a half to now. Given the headlines that define our current events, one might think that our Union was under siege. Bond ratings are downgraded; the stock market is volatile; we are engaged in foreign conflicts on the far side of the world; our Congress appears impotent; we can’t balance our budget; foreign potentates could call our stifling debt; unemployment is high; and our moral compass seems to be spinning.
All of these maladies afflict us, this is true. But it fails the test of perspective. Ours is a country that has proven in our short but splendid history to be capable of weathering tumultuous storms. In the past 150 years we have witnessed repeated financial scandals, political assassinations of multiple Presidents and civic leaders, two World Wars, a Great Depression that still dwarfs our current economic crisis, a continued quest for civil rights that set cities ablaze in the 1960’s and reflected shame upon our national soul, a war in a far away jungle that tore apart generations, a Presidential resignation and a Presidential impeachment. Need I go on?
We must apply the test of perspective to today’s problems. They are neither historic nor intractable. They were created by us and can be solved by us. There is no genie to come out of a bottle to magically snap a finger to resolve our problems. We don’t need one.
We must demand from those in leadership positions just that: leadership. Our country’s heritage is rife with examples of people who, when confronted with unexpected challenges under crushing pressure, rose to the occasion when called to perform and did so at the precise moment of need. That is all we need right now. Our problems of today do not need a Lincoln to solve.
We have figuratively quartered the horses in Washington to lead the country but do they have half the horsepower and courage as those who spilled their blood on the battlefield of Gettysburg to lead us through the muck and mire of our nations’ challenges? We often speak of the courage of our Founders who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to birth a nation. That creation has been buttressed four score and seven years plus seven score more by patriots who held true to the noble cause of freedom and who traded their youth that the Union may be preserved.
The day does not know what history will bring. The time for leadership to emerge in Washington is now. Who knows what real problems are in the offing? We owe it to our ancestors and our posterity to place country above politics and to advance this noble experiment called the United States of America.