The good folk of Gettysburg in rural Pennsylvania are braced for a blur of trinkets, muskets and pyrotechnic percussions as an invasion begins this week of thousands of tourists, re-enactors and history buffs all bent on celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle that carries their town's name, and marked the turning point in the war, and so this nation's history.
Organisers are emphasising family fun. There will be walking tours of the main battle sites, and visits through recreated encampments of the two opposing armies. The climax will be a presentation of Pickett's Charge, the moment at 2pm on 3 July 1863 – the third and last day of the Battle of Gettysburg – when Confederate troops made one last push to penetrate the lines of the Union Army and failed.
"In 1863, we had more than 165,000 uninvited guests come to town. At least, this time around, we got the chance to plan," Randy Phiel, a commissioner of surrounding Adams County, recently noted. "This is our Olympic moment." As many as 17,000 Civil War re-enactors are expected.
Increasingly, scholars lament the romanticising of the Civil War and battles such as Gettysburg. They were, of course, tableaux of dismemberment and slaughter. It is now thought 750,000 Americans died before it was all over, 20 per cent more than previous estimates. It claimed more lives than all the other wars Americans have fought combined. As a proportion of the population, that would translate into a figure of 7.5 million today. At Gettysburg, 7,000 corpses were left behind; the last human bones were found after spring rains in 1996.
"I don't understand why the Civil War has never become our First World War," Fitzhugh Brundage, a historian at the University of North Carolina and an expert on the period, said. "Pickett's Charge is portrayed as a remarkable demonstration of courage, which undoubtedly it was, but why isn't it remembered like the fields of Flanders? These men were marching to their deaths.
"The process of sanitising the Civil War and turning it into a brother-versus-brother war started right in the 1880s," says Professor Brundage. "Once you do that, both sides are kinds of pictures of courage and both sides are noble. These men didn't really want to fight each other; they fought a gentleman's war."
The Confederate poet Sidney Lanier asked, "How does God have the heart to allow it?" But years later, in Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner dreamed of what might have been had Pickett's Charge succeeded. The entire "War for Southern Independence" – as the Confederates preferred to call it – could indeed have turned out differently if the Union lines had been broken that day. On that most historians remain agreed. Secession and slavery in America might have endured, perhaps for generations.
"For every Southern boy of 14 years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods..." Faulkner wrote. "Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago..."
Calm will return to Gettysburg after the Fourth of July weekend, but anniversary activities for the year will not be over because it was in November 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln was invited to consecrate its battlefields. It was then that he delivered the "Gettysburg Address". A mere 272 words, it was a call for America to recommit itself to the ideals of equality imagined by the founding fathers. "Four score and seven years ago," he began, referring to the Declaration of Independence. It ended: "That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
So much that Lincoln, a Republican, deemed to be true, no longer is today. In a process that didn't really begin until the early 1960s but which has reached near completion only in the last several years, his party has replaced the Democrats as the main political force in the South.
Travel the old South today, moreover, and when you do see the occasional Confederate flag flying still from a home know that its residents will not be Democrats but conservative Republicans or Libertarians. The flag, with its connotations of racism that trace back directly to the defence of slavery by the Confederacy, has also been adopted by some chapters of the Tea Party movement that did so much to give Republicans their current control of the House of Representatives. What would Abe think of that?
Yet, something else would please him. On this anniversary, says Professor Brundage, the old narrative of the war – mostly of military strategy, derring-do and Union victory – has given way to a new version. The demise of the Confederacy ended slavery and led to emancipation. That surely was the message of the Gettysburg Address, yet only since the civil rights struggle of the 1960s has it been convenient for Americans to see it through that prism. For a century after the war and after Lincoln spoke, equality for African-Americans remained an illusion.
Says Professor Brundage: "That's an idea – emancipation – that even 50 years ago was not clear. Lincoln speaks to us more now than he did to previous generations who weren't much interested in African-American equality. He essentially re-founded the nation on a footing committed to equality.
"The one crucial truth that the new version, the new narrative acknowledges," he continues, "is that the Civil War may have been a war for the Union and for white northerners, but that African-Americans, through their own initiative, compelled the Union, the north, to address and ultimately accept emancipation."
The invitation has already been extended to President Barack Obama to help Gettysburg with the second round of 150-year celebrations marking the Lincoln address in November. With the exception of his famous speech on race during the 2008 election campaign in Philadelphia, Mr Obama has generally eschewed deep exploration of the topic in spite of his own racial heritage, or perhaps because of it. But he more than anyone will know that the challenge that Lincoln evoked, to create a nation that is truly equal, including between whites and blacks, has even now not been fully achieved.