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Gettysburg: Word and Deed

By Ruth Walker. Ruth Walker is the Monitor's deputy editor. / December 2, 1993



THE 130th anniversary of an event doesn't usually inspire particular commemoration. But the 130th anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has come at a time when the battle itself is once again much in thought: ``Gettysburg,'' the new movie produced by Cable News mogul Ted Turner and written and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, is at theaters near us all.

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War stories have a certain fascination for even the most unmartial among us. Peacemakers are uniquely blessed, but warmakers are uniquely heroic, caught up in the issues of action and inaction, of life and death, in a way that makes Hamlet pale by comparison. The American Civil War, even as it has faded from living memory, has long held a special place in the national psyche, and Gettysburg, the turning point of the war, a special place within that.

And so today, Civil War buffs are coming home after four-hours-and-something at the movie house to haul the big books down off the shelf and spend a few more hours considering the battle map again, reviewing the biography of this or that general.

A recommendation: That this latest film release spark a revival of interest in Garry Wills's book from last year, ``Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.''

Wills's thesis is that Lincoln seized the occasion of the dedication of the battlefield cemetery, some months after the fighting, to establish an ideal of equality as the quintessence of America: This ``new nation,'' he said, was ``dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'' In 272 words that mentioned no one by name or side or geographic location, he transcended the suffer-it-to-be-so-now ambiguities of slavery and the other detritus of imperfectly achieved ideals. From the Gettysburg Address ``all modern political prose descends.''

Wills contrasts the idealism of the Declaration of Independence (``All men are created equal'') with the practical, but tainted, realism of the Constitution, which countenanced slavery without mentioning it, and argues that Lincoln opted for the former. We forget that it was not always so. Says Wills: Lincoln ``came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution ....In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken - he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.''

A piece on Lincoln in these pages a few months ago prompted a reader to send along a copy of a 1938 recording of William R. Rathvon's reminiscences of hearing Lincoln at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863. Mr. Rathvon, then a schoolboy (and later a member of the board of the church that publishes this newspaper) had made it to Gettysburg the night before, in time to join a crowd ``serenading'' the president outside his lodgings.

On the day of the speech, he worked his way through the crowd, ended up only 15 feet from Lincoln, and was rapt with attention throughout the three brief minutes of the address - but was candid enough to acknowledge afterward that he couldn't have reconstructed a word of what the president said. Lincoln himself, with ``a manner serious almost to sadness,'' seemed lost in a sense of the sacrifice of the fallen. But those listening, Rathvon said, were aware that Lincoln was ``the greatest actor in all the drama, and that he was uttering words that would live as long as the language.''