Our opinion:?An evolutionary war

It is hard to imagine a century and a half later what happened on those rolling hills and placid farmland outside Gettysburg when America was reborn.

In the late afternoon, 150 years ago today, those rolling hills were littered with the dead and dying, thousands of them.

This week, on grounds nearby, a few thousand re-enactors are doing their best to recreate the pivotal battle of the American Civil War. The air is once again filled with the acrid, sulfur smell of black powder. There are the whoops and cries of men charging into battle. Some fall, feigning a mortal or serious wound,

But, it’s not the same. It can never be the same. There was no death at Gettysburg today, or yesterday. No severed limbs, no death rattles heard from the men sprawled on the ground.

Re-enactors can only attempt to portray in some tiny way the experience of war, but even they know their portrayal falls woefully short. William Hincks, whose great-great-grandfather, William Bliss Hincks, took a Confederate battle flag from a fallen Tennessee volunteer, seemed to appreciate the value as well as the shortcomings of re-enactments: “This has been unbelievable. The scale of it and the intensity those men must have gone through. It’s intense without flying lead.” It’s hard to imagine an ounce of lead tearing through bone and sinue.

Today is the anniversary of what we now call Pickett’s charge, when 12,000 Confederate soldiers approached a federal line at a brisk walk and were torn to pieces.

When this day was done 150 years ago, when the guns fell silent, there was little to do but tend to the wounded and dig thousands of graves. There was no time to contemplate the pivot in American history – world history for that matter – that had been sealed there and would not be finished for many more months.

As subsequent generations have found as they continue to grapple with constitutional questions and conflicts, the Civil War wasn’t a complete catharsis in the American experiment. We continue to refine and define ourselves as a nation.

Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis put it in perspective: “The ‘new birth of freedom’ President (Abraham) Lincoln spoke of was not a finite event …. It was part of a process that continued long after the Civil War and which, today, requires our constant vigilance.”