“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” So said Abraham Lincoln in November 1863, dedicating Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, where that July roughly 3,150 United States soldiers had died in combat. Among the dead were men of the 108th and 140th New York regiments, organized in Rochester.
Gettysburg cost more lives than any other battle of the war that still raged as Lincoln spoke on the battlefield-turned-burial ground, but it remained unclear what such staggering losses would mean. That was “the unfinished work” that the dead themselves could not do. It was, rather, “for us the living” to undertake “the great task remaining before us”—nothing less, Lincoln resolved, than making the suffering and death of so many Americans have a meaning worthy of their lives.
In recent months we have again borne witness to staggering losses of American life. Each loss ripples through a circle of family and friends. Every death takes a private toll. Taken together, 140,000 coronavirus deaths—and counting—is also a public phenomenon: a moment in the history of the United States. Those who have perished cannot determine what their deaths will mean for the nation; it is, once again, for us the living to ensure that they have not died in vain.
This is COVID-19’s Gettysburg moment. How do we meet it?
‘Our poor power to add or detract’
We can, first, face the toll of this pandemic with eyes that see. At the end of April, the New York Times reported that deaths in seven hard-hit states were “nearly 50 percent higher than normal” as the virus sunk its teeth into the United States, suggesting “9,000 more deaths” than were recorded in official COVID tallies. Owing to incomplete data, even this calculation “most likely undercounts the recent death toll significantly.” According to the Tampa Bay Times, Florida suppressed medical examiners’ list of coronavirus deaths, “which has at times shown a higher death toll than the state’s published count.” From a public perspective, an invisible death is a death in vain.
We can, second, resist rhetoric that minimizes the human cost of COVID. A Washington Times column emphasized that many of those dying lived “in long-term care or nursing-home facilities.” It reminded us that others falling ill “were overweight” or “had hypertension.” Such words evoke the title of an old war movie: “They were expendable.” Citing a now-outdated White House model forecasting 70,000 dead, the column asked: “And for that we shut down the U.S. economy?!” The COVID dead have not so much died in vain as in a farce, a “huge hoax perpetrated by media.”
Separate these claims from their political stakes. Focus, instead, on what they ask us to do: diminish our dead. Focus on what they invite us to feel: outrage (at the media), rather than grief or sympathy.
It is difficult to face so much death in so few weeks. It can be easier to look away. With the passing of time, it becomes possible to forget.
The 1918 influenza “killed … more Americans than died in combat in all the wars of (the 20th) century,” historian Alfred Crosby observed. “But it’s not in our collective memory.” It is a “mystery,” he said, “how we could have forgotten anything so horrendous.” As epidemiologist Shirley Fannin put it, “people just got rid of the memory.” Or, as scholar Elizabeth Outka argues, that memory became diffuse and submerged. Instead of public reckoning and remembrance, Americans elected to look away.
Looking to the future of her city after COVID, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser recently said, “Let’s not just get back to normal. Let’s be better than normal.”
A century ago, however, in the 1920 presidential election, just after the influenza pandemic, Americans chose Warren G. Harding, who promised them a return to “normalcy.” This month, the day after a record number of new COVID cases in the U.S., Representative Andy Biggs of Arizona called for disbanding the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Public health experts Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, its two most visible members, “continue to contradict many of President Trump’s stated goals and actions for returning to normalcy,” Biggs said.
Amid rhetorical, political, economic, and psychological imperatives to do so, we may soon be tempted—even encouraged—to forget our dead. That is one option. And it is the option that requires the least of us. Instead of taking up what Lincoln at Gettysburg called the “great task” of ensuring that the dead have not died in vain, we can refuse it.
‘The unfinished work’
But we can also make a different choice. Over its bloody course, Lincoln moved, haltingly, to make the Civil War a freedom war as well as a Union one—a struggle to expunge the sin of slavery in a nation lyricized as the land of the free. At Gettysburg, he resolved that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” A better future, not simply a return to the prewar past, might redeem the enormous loss of life. Five months after Lincoln’s address, the Senate passed the 13th Amendment. Ratified in late 1865, it constitutionally abolished slavery. A freedom to enslave would be succeeded by freedom from the tyranny of enslavement.
Efforts to secure that new birth of freedom began well before Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Enslaved people took their own freedom by escaping to Union lines, depriving the Confederacy of their labor and adding their strength to the U.S. military.
During the Reconstruction period, which historians often date from 1865 to 1877, African Americans and many white Republicans struggled mightily to ensure that the Civil War would not become a calamity without consequence in terms of extending human freedom and building multiracial democracy. President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a former slaveholder, had other ideas. In the spring of 1865, he held that “there is no such thing as reconstruction.” Change seekers faced a chief executive eager to proclaim the case closed when the verdict with respect to African Americans’ basic rights remained dangerously uncertain.
African American intellectual Frances E. W. Harper issued her 1866 “Appeal to the American People” in verse, reanimating a Lincoln line from Gettysburg to warn audiences that Union victory might become more hollowed than hallowed, for in moving aggressively to maintain white supremacy throughout the South, former Confederates were:
Asking you to weakly yield,
All we won upon the field,
To ignore on land and flood
All the offerings of our blood
And to write above our slain
They have fought and died in vain.
Harper was part of an interracial coalition of men and women, North and South, who in the aftermath of the war pushed the nation toward its highest ideals. For them, a return to “normalcy” was not an option.
Rochesterians were in the forefront of these efforts. Albion W. Tourgée, born in Ohio the son of a Methodist minister, enrolled at the University of Rochester in 1859 and studied there until the spring of 1861, when he exchanged books for a bayonet and enlisted in the Union Army. Wounded at First Bull Run and held at a Confederate prison camp, Tourgée came to regard social reformation as a necessary result of the war. “I don’t care a rag for ‘the Union as it was,’” he told Psi Upsilon fraternity brothers at Rochester. “I want and fight for the Union ‘better than it was.’”
Having fought during the war, Tourgée fought afterwards to make it mean something. He and his wife, Emma, supported freedmen’s schools in North Carolina, where Albion eventually became a judge. As Reconstruction in the South was inundated by a rising tide of white violence and an ebbing current of northern support, Tourgée watched the dream of a “Union ‘better than it was’” become submerged.
Though it lost the war, the Confederacy was winning the peace, and Tourgée recognized the role of popular literature in lionizing the southern “Lost Cause” while undermining the aims of Black freedom and multiracial democracy. He responded in kind, writing novels reminding readers that a new birth of freedom had only a few years before seemed not only a possible, but also the morally necessary result of the terrible war.
“Tourgée laid out an elaborate critique of national forgetting about the war,” historian David W. Blight wrote, “as well as a vigorous call for enforcement of black civil and political rights.” Tourgée’s work was ‘the literary equivalent of Frederick Douglass’ oratory in the development of Civil War memory in the late nineteenth century.
Douglass, prominent in the pantheon of Rochester residents, joined Harper in warning Americans as early as 1866 that the suffering and death of the Civil War might fade into memory without having enabled a better Union.
“Whether the tremendous war so heroically fought and so victoriously ended shall pass into history a miserable failure, barren of permanent results,—a scandalous and shocking waste of blood and treasure … or whether … we shall, as the rightful reward of victory over treason, have a solid nation, entirely delivered from all contradictions and social antagonisms, based upon loyalty, liberty, and equality, must be determined by the present session of Congress,” Douglass wrote.
It would not be determined, however, either by that Congress or during Douglass’ lifetime. Nor in Tourgée’s. Seventeen months after his address at Gettysburg, Lincoln was himself among the dead. It became others’ work to ensure that he, the Union dead, and the thousands of African Americans shot down while standing up for basic rights during Reconstruction, had not died in vain. That “unfinished work” fell to succeeding generations, and it carries on.
‘We here highly resolve’
As we stand today at our own burying grounds, what is our resolve?
Has this coronavirus calamity simply been an ordeal to endure, or does all the suffering and loss have some galvanizing purpose? Will it result in a new birth of freedom for our time—a period of reconstruction and reform addressing the myriad inadequacies and deep racial inequities that COVID has laid bare—or will a return to “normalcy” leave these problems untouched?
Reckoning with COVID, we might reevaluate the disparity between the significant health risks of “essential” work and its comparatively meager economic rewards. We might ask why in a “booming” economy so many Americans were one paycheck away from miles-long lines at food banks. The pandemic could prompt us to rebuild our Union better than it was, or its legacy could be limited to “We’re all in this together” commercials, in which “this” is the reassuring glow of national brands. The difference between these outcomes is a function not only of what we here highly resolve, but whether we resolve anything at all.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln gestured beyond the Civil War to a better nation. But he also spoke of prosecuting that war until Union victory—for which so many had already given “the last full measure of devotion”—was achieved.
Our battle against COVID is today very much in doubt. More than 800 front-line health care workers have given their lives in the struggle. While Lincoln resolved to finish his fight, “America is giving up on the pandemic,” according to the Atlantic. “The coronavirus may not be done with the nation, but the nation’s capital appears to be done with the coronavirus,” reported the New York Times. “As the pandemic’s grim numbers continue to climb … Mr. Trump and lawmakers in both parties are exhibiting a short attention span.”
Just as it was in the mid-1860s, the outcome today is uncertain. Just as then, it will have to be determined by countless people—from elected officials to everyday citizens. This is COVID’s Gettysburg moment. Will we meet it?
Michael J. Brown is assistant professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Hope and Scorn: Eggheads, Experts, and Elites in American Politics. All coronavirus articles are collected here.