Friday, November 18, 2005

64: “In Remembrance”

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 18, 1863.

His train arrived shortly before dark. He strode with the gait of one so tall, yet so strong, up the hill to the town center, and across the street to the house of his host. He was a day early, but he had insisted on it being that way. The others had not arrived yet, except for the main speaker. His host, who had met him at the train, showed him in to dinner.

Later in the evening, a crowd gathered out front, under his window, sometimes serenading him, sometimes pleading with him to come out and talk to them. He finally relented.

“I appear before you, fellow citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me, for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. (The crowd laughed.) In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say foolish things. (Someone shouted, “If you can help it!) It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. (The crowd laughed again.) Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.”

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863.

In the morning he rode in a carriage to the Battlefield, seeing for himself where the great battles were fought that made up the three day engagement here a brief four months earlier. Later, when it was time for the procession to start, he mounted his horse, and sat patiently while the organizers sorted out the order of the procession.

Having just lost his son, he wore a mourning band on his tall hat.

The main speaker was already at the site, in a special tent reserved for him. When the procession reached the raised platform, and the dignitaries were arranged on it, the main speaker emerged from his tent, and mounted the platform. This 69-year old man began to speak. Periodically, he pointed to the various portions of the Battlefield as he spoke, emphasizing his disdain for the enemy. For two hours, through his magnificent recounting of the Battle, his audience heard what had happened here. Finally, his speech complete, he retired to a chair on the platform.

Music played, and prayers were said, and it was time for the tall man to speak. He stood, and went to the front of the platform, looking out over the thousands of people, and the half completed cemetery with its freshly dug graves. Unlike the night before, there was no reticence, for this was the reason he had come to this town. He began to speak.

“Fourscore 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. (The crowd applauded.)

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

“But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. (The crowd applauded again.) The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. (Again the crowd applauded.) It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. (The crowd applauded.) 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 the cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion, --that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain (Once more, the crowd applauded.), that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (There was sustained applause from the crowd.)

Afterwards, the crowd melted away, and he journeyed back to the train station, for his return to the Capital. He felt a sense of satisfaction and pride at his remarks. He had tried to impart a sense of reaching a milestone in the war, to the end stages. People needed to start thinking about what was coming, and preparing for it. He wanted to get them thinking as one people, and one nation again, and to get them there without the recriminations that would be natural after several years of war. Yes, he had lost his son recently, and another son was sick at home. He had lost many sons since the start of the war, very few of whom he actually knew. But they were all his sons. And there were no sides, after all, weren’t they all Americans?

The train began to pull from the station.


For reference: Wills, Garry, Lincoln at Gettysburg, The Words That Remade America, Touchstone Edition, Literary Research Inc., New York, 1992. ISBN: 0-671-86742-3 (PBK).

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