I recall in school the somber acknowledgement annually on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when we would devote a moment of silence in remembrance of the end of World War I, the 1918 signing of the Armistice. It was called Armistice Day then.
We daily pledged allegiance to the flag, and although the overwhelming majority of Americans adhered to the belief that the words “under God” imply, that phrase was not in the pledge until much later.
We memorized the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. We sang “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing,” never realizing that the melody came from the very country who once held us captive. We knew the difficult words and melody of “The Star Spangled Banner” and we knew, and practiced, flag and pledge etiquette.
“America the Beautiful” described a country that we called our own but could only dream of seeing “when we grew up.” With age, we came to understand the meaning behind the symbols, but we had the basics, a sense of the greatness of our nation, warts and all.
Daughter Sarah and I spent seven days recently on a pilgrimage of sorts to some of the sites that hold our nation’s past in safekeeping. Although the trip was planned to research my family tree, we managed to cover extra historic ground as well.
Gettysburg was in the midst of preparation for a big 150th commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 2 and 3. Plans called for re-enactments to take place, although, according to our guide, no re-enactments are performed on the actual battlefield.
The fields now are eerily quiet and peaceful except for the traffic of tour buses and visitor vehicles. The monuments and markers stand along the way to remind us of those leaders and their men, where they came from, how they fought, and how they died.
So far removed from the battle as we are today, 150 years later, it seems meaningless to discuss who won and who lost. The end result was a nation united.
The loss in this one battle was the lives of 7,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, killed outright, and another 3,000 dying of their wounds in the days and weeks following. The cemetery attests to the horrors of those three days.
As Lincoln so aptly put it, “We cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead have dedicated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” But the ground is hallowed.
An impressive monument, a memorial to the speech itself, occupies center stage at one entrance to the cemetery, with a bust of that hauntingly familiar figure (our most recognizable president?) watching over the nearby graves, perhaps encouraging us to whisper, to be reverent, even to pray.
Although scant yards from a busy street, this spot is secluded, protected by black wrought iron fencing and noise-muffling trees and shrubs.
They say more books have been written about the War Between the States than any other subject in our nation’s history. That may or may not be true, but the subject never goes away.
The art, the music, photography, artifacts and mementos, the images we hold in our minds, captured there by spoken and written word — it all comes together to remind us.
Yet we dare today to divide ourselves once again. How can that be? The pain persists, as does the healing. Hindsight and research reveal previously untold stories.
For every soldier who died, and every soldier who came home, there is another story.
As if Gettysburg were not enough, we made our way on another day to Valley Forge. No battle here, but George Washington’s spirit is everywhere. His was a war of a different breed, the deaths from a different enemy.
We had been the day before to see the Liberty Bell and walk the streets of Philadelphia where much of the history of the country’s birth is preserved and where the spirit of Ben Franklin reigns. He is truth and legend, much like Betsy Ross whose home is within easy walking distance of Ben’s resting place.
Liberty flows freely in the air around us. The shopping spree here was our undoing — had to purchase an extra carry-on later.
How appropriate to wind up our trip in the home of Independence Hall where it all began in July 1776. Patriotism is alive and well after all. Happy 4th to all of you.
Juanita Hughes is Woodstock’s official historian and former director of the Woodstock Public Library.