Gettysburg, then and now

The names and faces of war casualties take up two walls of the Gettysburg exhibit and still represent a small fraction of those who died during three days of fighting in early July 1863. The death toll reached 11,000. There were another 40,000 casualties — wounded, captured or missing. 

A visit last week to the Civil War battleground museum in Gettysburg served as a reminder of how far we’ve come in the past 153 years and, jarringly, how far we still have to go.

As one museum plaque says, “Americans fought one another over three fundamental issues: the survival of the Union, the fate of slavery, and the common rights of citizenship — what it means to be American. The war resolved the first two issues. The nation struggles with the third to this day.”  

Another plaque notes that people living in the United States in the mid- to late 1800s “included new immigrants, American Indians, slaves, free blacks – men, women, and children. But with a few exceptions, only white males over 21 enjoyed all the rights of citizenships, including the right to vote.”

Sadly, not only do efforts to impose voting restrictions prevail, but so does the inhumane treatment of those living within the nation’s borders, including the most recent iteration of a relentless crackdown on immigrant communities — the recent separation of nearly 2,000 immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border, a practice condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics for causing “irreparable harm.”

Gettysburg Address

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

So begins the Gettysburg Address, a speech of a mere 272 words that Abraham Lincoln gave at a memorial service for the thousands who perished on 9.3 square miles of land in and around Gettysburg, PA. 

At the time, the Gettysburg Address received mixed reviews. Some gave it high praise. “His little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma,” said the Republican, published in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Others did not. “The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln. Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce,” said the London Times.

The photo above depicts a distant view of the monument marking the place where Lincoln spoke. The monument is surrounded by low lying cement markers for the deceased. Today, visitors honor the site by placing pennies — heads up — on the monument and nearby tombstones.


Ghost Tours

As one might expect, ghost tours abound in Gettysburg. Asked about the possibility of encountering ghoulish specters in and around town, a park ranger rolled his eyes. “I’ve been on the battlefield all hours of the night and day, and I’ve never seen a ghost,” he said. But the tours, he added, offer up insights into what happened in the days leading up to, during, and after the single most pivotal and bloody battle in the Civil War. 



The New Enriques


Twelve years ago, Sonia Nazario published a Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles in the Los Angeles Times called Enrique’s Journey. It was a powerful account of one boy’s overland odyssey from Honduras to the United States to find his mother.

Enrique, who had not seen his mother in 11 years, made eight attempts to get through Mexico. It took him four months, he traversed a total of 12,000 miles, and along the way, he was badly beaten, slept in sewage tunnels as well as trees, and at one point, went for two days without a drop of water.

And he was one of the lucky ones. He made it, and he made it alive.

In Mexico, Nazario said, the immigrant children who travel solo to the United States “are hunted like animals. . . by people who are trying to rob them, rape them, or deport them.”

Nazario made these comments at a recent convention held by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). She distributed copies of her book Enrique’s Journey, including a young adult version, and spoke to teachers about the power of storytelling.

She said she found that a certain kind of storytelling made a difference, the kind that allowed her to humanize an issue, to explore it in-depth and to tell it through “one powerful thread,” which in this case was Enrique’s journey.

enrique's journey book 2More than anything, she said, “I’ve searched for stories that moved me on an emotional level, that made the hair stand up on my arm.

“That’s my barometer of a good story, because you know what? If they move me, they might move you to read to the end, to become educated, maybe to do something to better the problem I’m describing.”

By retracing Enrique’s steps, Nazario told the story of tens of thousands of other children who were coming from Central America and Mexico to the United States illegally, on their own, and in many cases, in search of a parent.

At the time, roughly 48,000 such children were coming to the United States every year. In the past three years, she said, their numbers have increased tenfold, and their motivation is even more stark now than it was then.

Today, she said, “these children are fleeing some of the most violent places on Earth. They are being conscripted by gangs and by narco cartels to join up or be killed.”

Nazario went back to Honduras last summer and visited Enrique’s hometown. Elementary schools in his neighborhood, she said, are now controlled by the drug cartels. A sixth grader she interviewed said three of his friends had been killed for refusing to do the bidding of drug gangs; and girls face the same fate if they refuse to go out with gang leaders.

One girl named Milagro told Nazario that “it’s better to leave than to have them kill me here.”

Enrique's Journey bookThe majority of children coming to the United States today, she said, “are no different from children recruited as child soldiers in Sudan. Most of these children are refugees.”

Nazario’s speech at the NCTE convention coincided with the announcement of President Barack Obama’s latest round of immigration reform measures, ones that would allow an estimated 5.2 million undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally.

Nazario applauded Obama for implementing policies that would enable undocumented parents to stay in the United States with their citizen children, but she also said that standard policy procedures are not enough — especially when it comes to immigrant kids.

“We must,” she said, “get beyond the same three, tired approaches we keep trying to use to solve the immigration issue —  guest worker programs, border enforcement on steroids, and pathways to citizenship.”

What’s needed, she said, is a solution “focused on addressing this exodus at its source in terms of helping to create change in countries where violence, corruption, and bad governance [are] pushing droves of children to leave.”