For days before the trip, we learned about the Battle of Gettysburg. It occurred in early July, 1863, on a small patch of land in Pennsylvania. It was the bloodiest and deadliest battle in the entire Civil War. There will never be an exact account but estimates are that close to fifty thousand troops from the Union and Confederate armies were killed or injured in three days. Mr. Weadon told the class that many historians like him, believe it was a turning point in the Civil War. Before Gettysburg, some thought that General Robert E. Lee and the south would win the war. Mr. Weadon asked the class to think about how our nation would be different today had Lee and the Confederate army won at Gettysburg.
I took a different approach. After school, I took my book to the park. I sat alone reading about how Mr. Lincoln worried he would lose the next Presidential election. He feared the nation was tired of war. Citizens wanted the war to end even if it meant allowing slavery to continue in the south. President Lincoln understood allowing slavery to continue was morally corrupt and wrong for the nation.
The words he wrote on the yellow stained pages were as follows, “American will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
I sat under my favorite tree thinking about those words. I think he meant that other countries could not destroy democracy within the United States. Only the citizens of this country could destroy it. It was like my friendship with Bruce and Wendy. Greg and his band of bullies could never the hurt the friendship the three of us had developed. Only if the three of us argued with each other, could our friendship be destroyed.
A tall thin man walked towards me. He had a small beard on part of his chin. Mr. Weadon described Mr. Lincoln in class. I knew the man now in my shadow was the former President. His eyes dripped with tears. His white shirt wrinkled. His shoes covered in mud. He paced back and forth in front of me.
“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves,” the President said.
He paced more. I wasn’t even sure he knew I was sitting under the tree. He paid me no attention. He bent down and removed a long thin blade of grass from the ground. He inspected the grass. I sat not wanting to make a sound. He sighed.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he said as he tore the blade of grass in two.
I closed my book. Lincoln looked at me from his bent perch.
“What are you reading?”
“I was reading your notes about the Civil War.”
Lincoln offered a smile. “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.”
“Mom tells me all the time how important it is to read. Some of the other Presidents told me that too. I guess you don’t have much time for reading now though.”
“It is important that you read, Alex. You learn from books. I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday. Devouring good books will help you in your search for knowledge.”
“I don’t know if you know or not, but I have met other Presidents, Mr. Lincoln. I have learned about some who owned slaves but thought it was not right that the United States allowed slavery. You look so tired. The words you wrote in my book tell me you would have done anything to end slavery and keep our nation as one. Why?”
The President stood up. He offered his hand. I took it and stood next to him. We both started to walk. Our pace was slow. He noticed some kids who looked to be high school age playing basketball. Some were white, some dark skinned. Others were sitting courtside waiting to play in the next game. Lincoln watched the game for a moment and walked away from the park. I walked by his side.
“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to be free – honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope on earth.”
Now he sounded like Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln was speaking in riddles.
“I want to understand, President Lincoln. What is the best hope on earth?”
“You, Alex. Me, our neighbors, our friends. The democracy we hold dear must endure and we must fight with all our beings to assure it remains. Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. Slavery must end and democracy must endure.”