George Will

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- In 1863, eleven major roads converged on this town. Which is why history did, too.

The founding of the American nation was the hinge of world history: Popular sovereignty would have its day. The collision of armies here was the hinge of American history: The nation would long endure. Which is why 200 or so generous private citizens recently gathered here for a quiet celebration of their gift to the nation -- a sparkling new Museum and Visitor Center that instructs and inspires.

In 1997, Bob Kinsley, a contractor in York, Pa., decided that something should be done about the decrepit facilities for explaining the battle and displaying its artifacts. His determination survived more than 50 public meetings and three congressional hearings, and two years of resistance from rival bidders, some Gettysburg merchants, and people who think the private sector takes up space that the public sector should fill.

He started the Gettysburg Foundation and hired Bob Wilburn, who had administered Colonial Williamsburg. Wilburn raised the $103 million that built the new center, which includes a theater for the scene-setting film narrated by Morgan Freeman, and the Cyclorama, the circular painting that depicts Pickett's Charge on the battle's third and final day. Americans today are so constantly pummeled by the sensory blitzkrieg -- the sights and sounds of graphic journalism and entertainment -- they can hardly fathom how the Cyclorama dazzled viewers when displayed in 1884. Magnificently restored and presented, it is still stunning.

The battle here was fought in and around a town that continued to grow. At one point there was a Stuckey's restaurant where the second day of fighting raged. The Gettysburg Foundation's work includes recovering battle sites from urban encroachments.

It recently bought the 80-acre Spangler farm. The house, which was behind Union lines, was used as a hospital for both sides. Gen. Lewis Armistead of Virginia died there. He received his mortal wounds during Pickett's Charge, leading the deepest penetration of Union lines on Cemetery Ridge at the spot now known as "the high-water mark of the Confederacy."

Recently, a Gold Star mother finally visited Gettysburg, after driving by it often en route to visit the Arlington, Va., grave of her son, who was killed in Iraq. She was especially moved by these words from a Gettysburg newspaper published four days after the battle: "Every name ... is a lightning stroke to some heart, and breaks like thunder over some home, and falls a long black shadow upon some hearthstone." Gettysburg still stirs, but not as it used to, or should.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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