I am always humbled when I travel to Gettysburg as I did just two weeks ago. It is hard to believe in that now peaceful pastoral setting that over 157,000 Americans, almost 82,000 Union and 75,000 Confederate met in a three day battle. In those three days over 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, missing or captured. It was the greatest number of casualties inflicted in one battle on American soil in history.
The places that the battle was fought have become legendary, for they are “hallowed ground” as President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it. The places, McPherson’s and Herr’s Ridge, Seminary Ridge, the Railroad Cut, Barlow’s Knoll, Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, The Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge, the Apse of Trees, the Angle and the High Water Mark are in a sense holy, or hallowed, consecrated by those who struggled there, those who lived and those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country.
I think about those men of both sides, fully convinced of the rightness of their cause who fought valiantly in the struggle. That being said when I go there though my family predominantly fought for the Confederacy my heart is drawn to those men who remained loyal to the Union and those who answered the call of Abraham Lincoln to serve in a cause greater than their own interests, the great and the small alike.
Lincoln was a masterful orator who managed to rally the Union and bring hundreds of thousands of men volunteer before Gettysburg. They came for an ideal an ideal which Lincoln’s oratory was probably the most effective at articulating in a way that men would volunteer to suffer hardship, fight and die to bring about. It was well put in the movie Gettysburg where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain said:
“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. This has not happened much, in the history of the world: We are an army out to set other men free. America should be free ground, all of it, from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow, no man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by who your father was. Here you can be something. Here is the place to build a home. But it’s not the land. There’s always more land. It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me. What we’re fighting for, in the end… we’re fighting for each other…”
On November 19th 1863 Lincoln delivered a “few words” at Gettysburg which were in all practical aspects a benediction at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery. Lincoln was the second speaker at the ceremony following former Pennsylvania Congressman Edward Everett who spoke for more than two hours, a typical speech from the period. The 270 words of Lincoln’s address are perhaps the most important of any speech or document in American history save the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.
The speech was so powerful that Everett wrote Lincoln the next day:
“Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & 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.”
The speech is short, but it’s eloquence is unmatched. Lincoln wrapped ideas, concepts and ideals that men have written volumes about into a speech so powerful that many have memorized it.
But few realize the context that it must be placed. Though the Union had defeated Lee’s Army at Gettysburg and Grant had taken Vicksburg to cut the Confederacy in half the North was groining war weary. There were those in the North, the Copperheads who were willing even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg to end the war on terms favorable to the Confederacy, even granting Confederate independence and the continuation of slavery. Likewise Lincoln was sick when he delivered the address having what was mostly likely a mild form of Smallpox when he gave the address. Thus the tenor, simplicity and depth are even more remarkable. It is a speech given in the manner of Winston Churchill’s “Blood sweat toil and tears” address to Parliament upon being appoint Prime Minister in 1940.
In a time where many are wearied by the foibles and follies of our politicians, even wondering about our form of government can survive Lincoln’s words matter. Dr Allen Guelzo, Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College wrote in the New York Times today:
“The genius of the address thus lay not in its language or in its brevity (virtues though these were), but in the new birth it gave to those who had become discouraged and wearied by democracy’s follies, and in the reminder that democracy’s survival rested ultimately in the hands of citizens who saw something in democracy worth dying for. We could use that reminder again today.”
Dr Guelzo is quite correct. Many people in this country and around the world are having grave doubts about our democracy. I wonder myself, but I am an optimist. I do believe that we will recover because for the life of me I see no nation anywhere else with our resiliency and ability to overcome the stupidity of politicians, pundits and preachers.
The amazing thing was that in spite of everything the Union survived. Lincoln was a big part of that but it was the men who left lives of comfort and security like Joshua Chamberlain and so many others who brought about that victory. Throughout the war, even to the end Southern political leaders failed to understand that Union men would fight and die for an ideal, something greater than themselves, the preservation of the Union and the freedom of an enslaved race. For those that volunteered it was not about personal gain, loot or land,it was about something greater. It was about freedom.
Now I for one do not think that we are currently living up to the ideals enunciated by Lincoln that day at Gettysburg. I can understand the cynicism disillusionment of Americans as well as those who have for over 200 years looked to us and our system as a “city set on a hill.” That being said, when I read these words and walk that hallowed ground I am again a believer that we can realize the ideal.
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 battle-field 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 that 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.
In the hope that we again realize those ideals and help bring about “a new birth of freedom,” I wish you a good night.