Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Gettysburg Address: Why Lincoln's Speech Lives On

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, 
but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us
the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work
which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

                                                                        —Abraham Lincoln

  Today marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's "brief remarks" made at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863 four and a half months after the Union victory there over the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

  It is critical to remember the events of those days and the mood of the country. Gettysburg had been a major Union victory, but one that had narrowly avoided a catastrophe as Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army invaded Pennsylvania. The victory had come at a terrible price, over 23,000 casualties, killed, wounded and missing. Lee's army had escaped back over the Potomac river in July ensuring the war would continue.

  A distraught Lincoln had blamed General Meade (perhaps unfairly) after the battle and told Secretary Hay, “Our Army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it.” With Lee’s army still  defending Richmond, Lincoln faced the real possibility that the American people would lose the will to see the war through to victory--a victory that now included the emancipation of all slaves held in Confederate territory as a stated war aim. The Emancipation Proclamation was a highly controversial measure in politics at the time. A year later, Lincoln would be facing re-election--a referendum on his proclamation and conduct of the war.

  Lincoln would be making a speech at a dedication of the final resting place for thousands of his soldiers who had fallen at Gettysburg. Many people in the North were calling for an end to the war, supporting Lincoln’s political rival George C. McClellan to form a new administration in 1864, to negotiate peace with the Confederacy. If that happened, everything Lincoln had worked for—the preservation of the Union, the abolishment of slavery, and the sacrifices of millions of people—would have been in vain.

Union dead at Gettysburg. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan
  Lincoln knew what pain and suffering meant. He knew what it was like to lose a son. But with the future of the country at stake and with a chance to end slavery, he would not accept a compromised peace. A year earlier he had written to William Seward, “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me.”

  The Gettysburg Address was a chance for Lincoln to explain to the country--to a wounded and tired populace who had sacrificed greatly already, why the war needed to continue and why total victory over a compromised peace was so critical for Lincoln's vision of the American future. Lincoln knew there was a great weariness among the people. The Confederacy showed no signs of surrendering their cause for independence. Lincoln knew what he was asking by continuing the war--the deaths from battle and disease, the orphaned children and widowed mothers, the total destruction of land and property—Americans slaughtering Americans—would continue.

  E. W. Andrews who saw Lincoln speak that day recalled that Lincoln “came out before the vast assembly, and stepped slowly to the front of the platform, with his hands clasped before him, his natural sadness of expression deepened, his head bent forward, and his eyes cast to the ground. In this attitude he stood for a few seconds, silent, as if communing with his own thoughts; and when he began to speak, and throughout his entire address, his manner indicated no consciousness of the presence of tens of thousands hanging on his lips, but rather of one who, like the prophet of old, was overmastered by some unseen spirit of the scene, and passively gave utterance to the memories, the feelings, the counsels and the prophecies with which he was inspired.”

Lincoln spoke these simple words:

    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.

    Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—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.

  The brevity of Lincoln’s words surprised the crowd. Many stood silent at his conclusion, transfixed by his words. A witness recalled, “Had not Lincoln turned and moved toward his chair, the audience would very likely have remained voiceless for several moments more. Finally there came applause and a calling, ‘Yes! Yes! Government for the people!’ It was as if the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west were echoing Lincoln’s concluding and keynote thought.” Three cheers erupted for the president and his delegation.

  Edward Everett, keynote speaker at the dedication who narrated a two hour epic of the Gettysburg battle before Lincoln spoke, wrote to Lincoln the next day, “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity and appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Edward Everett
  History would come to agree with Everett. In just two minutes, Lincoln had reminded Americans that the nation was founded on the principles of human equality expressed by the Declaration of Independence. The war was a struggle to preserve the nation and democracy as envisioned by the founding fathers. It was now up to the country to dedicate itself to achieving a final victory over the Confederacy so that the thousands who perished at Gettysburg had not sacrificed their lives in vain. Such a victory would grant America a new birth of freedom, a new nation without slavery — one nation, indivisible, whose government was dedicated to the freedom and rights of all its people.

Senator Charles Sumner
  Charles Sumner, a senator and abolitionist from Massachusetts, writing just after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, noted “that speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg . . . and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are always more than battles.”

You can read more about the Gettysburg campaign in my new book, Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest Battle of the Civil War written for teens but a great read for anyone interested in the Civil War, Gettysburg and President Lincoln.

Amazon: http://amzn.to/14oSn9a

Barnes&Noble: http://bit.ly/14s8Vuo  

Also available as an eBook on Kindle, Nook, and Itunes. 

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