“War at the best, is terrible, and this war of ours, in its magnitude and in its duration, is one of the most terrible.” Abraham Lincoln, Speech at Philadelphia on June 16, 1864.
Last night I sat in a small theater, surrounded by people dressed in Civil War era uniforms and civilian attire to see a moving tribute to the passing of a great President 150 years ago today. Professor Matt Warshauer’s play “Assassination” started with the shocking event that mortally wounded Lincoln and then conveyed some of the Nation’s reaction in the 12 days that followed until Booth was arrested and the accomplices were hanged. As his cast read the words of that time’s press we saw familiar photographs of the era, although omitting the more horrific medical documentary images or the confronting battlefield scenes recorded by Matthew Brady and his peers.
The American Civil War exacted a horrendous toll on the soldiers as well as the larger population for the duration of the hostilities and for generations after as the nation slowly sought to rebuild. The scale of the conflict was staggering with 650-750,000 casualties or 2.1-2.4% of the population. In today’s terms that represents 6.3-6.44 million people so the human consequences are unimaginable in our pampered lives.
So why does this devastating event still linger in a nation’s pysche 150 years later? Why are there so many preserved battlefields, monuments, museums and events? Why so many re-enactors? Are we glorifying war that has been sanitized by the distance of time or are we trying to learn from an era that tore basic principles of civilization to their core?
Was it the shock of Lincoln enduring war to be murdered in peace that still haunts a country? Perhaps it was the simple injustice of being attacked when enjoying a simple, positive personal activity for pleasure after the strain of carrying such a burden that seems unwarranted?
So why do we recall Lincoln and Kennedy’s oratory skills but forget Garfield and McKinley’s assassinations? In an article today the NY Times suggested Lincoln’s speeches are the ones all President’s seek to honor or emulate. Was it that Lincoln was such an early adopter of photography that we can recall his image and feel we know the man behind his distinctly craggy features, even though his contemporaries and followers also employed the same technology? Is it his words? Many of his preserved speeches are cumbersome by today’s casual standards but they wrestle with complex issues that divided as country. His eloquent excerpts distilled the essence of the issues and bored into our consciousness.
Two weeks ago I listened to Yale University Professor David Blight debate why Lincoln’s narrative drew on the Founding Father’s Constitution but are still relevant questions today. In four years I have attended countless lectures, toured battlefields and even slept in General Lee’s headquarters at Gettysburg. After four years of re-enactments, why does the fascination endure?
Last Thursday I photographed a small bell-ringing ceremony at a local church as part of a National Parks Commemoration to signal the surrender at Appomatix, heralding the beginning of the Confederate’s surrender process. It was poorly attended. Perhaps the rest of the country does not value the past or perhaps we are to busy to pause to reflect.
Perhaps we are now numb to violence. Civil wars abound in Africa, South America, Europe and the Middle East. News events stop us but them are swamped by the tsunami of new horror stories. This may be heresy but why are guns still accepted as a right in this country when 10% of Presidents have been killed within a 102 year period and over 16,000 people lost their lives annually, more than 5 times the 9/11 attacks that still leave a scar to this day. Perhaps the saddest legacy of this conflict is acceptance of man’s inhumanity to man is immutable.
I truly hope this is not the case: I dedicate so much of my daily activity to trying to improve the human condition around me and make the world better. Next week I promise you a "feel good" story. to balance the profoundly sad reflections of the past week.