Re-enactors at Gettysburg, 2009
*Somerset, PA Daily American
December 11, 2010
as "Gettysburg, the Address, and the Why"
as "Gettysburg, the Address, and the Why"
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
November 19th is just a date to most. I’m sure that somewhere a birthday or anniversary was being celebrated. But for the rest of us, it was just another Friday, five days until Thanksgiving.
But on one November 19th, an event occurred that truly defined this nation.
July 1, 1863 was an uncommonly hot and humid summer day. In another time, it might have been a day to spend in the shade with a glass of lemonade. But on that morning, two great armies met at a crossroads village named Gettysburg.
Strategists call it “a meeting engagement,” a battle where the location itself wasn’t the thing contested.
It was a key battle, one that in large part determined the outcome of the Civil War. Although the war would last two more tragic years, Gettysburg set both sides irrevocably on the road that ended at Appomattox Court House.
From July 1st, when 2,500 Union cavalry troopers held off 20,000 Confederates, until the evening of July 3rd when the remnants of Pickett’s charge limped away from Cemetery Ridge, some 56,000 soldiers were killed or wounded.
After the battle, both armies moved south, Lee retreating, Meade pursuing, leaving the town and the land reeking of death.
By November, Gettysburg was quiet, the war having moved south. The dead had been interred, the graves marked when possible. Because of the battle’s import and the terrible human cost, it had been decided to designate the site a national memorial.
On November 19th, 1863, four months after the battle, people gathered in Gettysburg from far and wide. Aboard the special train from Washington, President Abraham Lincoln worked on the speech he would give. Lincoln wasn’t the only speaker on the bill; he wasn’t even the keynoter. That honor went to Edward Everett, a Senator from Massachusetts, a Pastor, a Harvard professor, and a former U.S. Secretary of State, and the most well-known orator of his time.
On this day, he rose and spoke eloquently for two hours.
After Everett took his seat, President Lincoln rose. Into the expectant air, he spoke.
He recalled the birth of the United States, that it was founded on principles of liberty and equality. America was being tested in war, a test we must pass. Lincoln then talked about the appropriateness of setting aside part of that battlefield to honor the fallen.
The President stated that the ground had been made sacred not by ceremony and speeches, but by struggle and sacrifice. He said that while the ceremony that day would likely pass unnoticed, all should remember the valor of the men who fought. He reminded people that there lay before them an unfinished task. Lincoln challenged them; that their devotion to freedom and national unity should equal a patriot’s ultimate act of devotion.
And that we should take a solemn oath that their deaths will never have been wasted.
The United States, said Lincoln, should see the end of the war, not as the vanquishing of a foe, but as the re-uniting of a family. The country would see a rebirth of our God-given freedom under a government run, not by politicians, but by the people they serve. America, once bloodily divided, could now live forever as one nation; "indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
270 words, two-and-a-half minutes.
Yet, despite its brevity, the Gettysburg Address is universally regarded as the greatest presidential speech, and one of the most eloquent orations in human history.
The speech not only spoke to the question of why the war was being fought, but looked beyond the coming battles to a time when the country would once again be reunited.
This was Abraham Lincoln’s dream, one from which he never wavered.
Today, the Gettysburg Address remains as relevant as it was on that day in 1863. In 2010, America faces another time of deep division perhaps the most polarized since the civil War. We should re-read Lincoln’s words and remember the cost that was paid “…that this nation might live.”
It is up to us -- We the People -- to determine whether that blood was shed in vain.
The Gettysburg Address
President Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863
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 that nation might live.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate;
we can not consecrate;
we cannot 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,
and for the people
shall not perish from the earth.