Tuesday, November 19, 2019

One Short Speech

I first blogged this in 2013.  Now that there are those claiming our political divisions will result in a second United States Civil War, it is well we step back and reread history to discover just what the first Civil War did to our country.

It wasn't pretty.  It wasn't romantic.  In some ways, we still haven't recovered.  We are still surrounded by reminders, such as a speech generations of school children had to memorize.
Possibly the most famous speech in United States history began simply, as a verbal invitation, followed later by something in writing.

On November 2, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln received this invitation:

"Gettysburg Nov. 2 1863
To His Excellency
A. Lincoln
President U. S.

The Several States having Soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, who were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, or have since died at the various hospitals which were established in the vicinity, have procured grounds on a prominent part of the Battle Field for a Cemetery, and are having the dead removed to them and properly buried.
These Grounds will be Consecrated and set apart to this Sacred purpose, by appropriate Ceremonies, on Thursday, the 19th instant. Hon Edward Everett will deliver the Oration. I am authorized by the Governors of the different States to invite you to be present, and participate in these Ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive.
It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the Great Battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.
We hope you will be able to be present to perform this last solemn act to the Soldiers dead on this Battle Field.
I am with great Respect, Your Excellency's Obedient Servant
David Wills
Agent for A. G. Curtin Gov. of Penna.[Pennsylvania] and acting for all the States"

In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863,  some 2500 residents of Gettysburg were left to tend to the thousands of wounded and bury the thousands more who had died during the three day battle. Gettysburg was to be the costliest battle (in lives lost) of the Civil War.   I will spare you the details of the horrific conditions endured that summer by the farmers and others who owned the land where the dead fell, and what overwhelmed remaining Union soldiers and area residents went through, but if you are interested, here is one description. This article also has a harrowing description of what the Confederate soldiers left behind in Lee's retreat experienced.

Eventually, state and local governments came together.  With financial help from every Union state whose citizens died at Gettysburg, lawyer David Willis oversaw the purchase of 17 acres for what became a national cemetery.  It was to be dedicated on November 19, 1863, and the featured speaker was going to be....

...no, not President Lincoln.  He was invited to give some remarks after the featured orator.  You might say, he was invited almost as an afterthought. (more on that shortly).

It was, instead, a noted orator by the name of Edward Everett, a man who had served as a Congressman, a Secretary of State, a Senator and the Governor of Massachusetts, who was to give the main speech. 

So it sounds like the President was being slighted, being treated almost as an afterthought.  But, I have read that was not the case at all - that, in the 1860's Presidents were not expected to give speeches. That was the job of orators such as Everett, and Lincoln was to give a "few words" in his role as President.

Ironically, perhaps, Everett would not live to see the end of the Civil War, and Lincoln himself only outlived the end by a few days.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Today is the 156th anniversary of the dedication of Gettysburg's National Cemetery on November 19, 1863, and here is the address Lincoln thought would not long be remembered.

He was wrong.

There are five known copies of the address, with some differences.  I believe this one is the most commonly quoted.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

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.


Perhaps I should start rerunning my Civil War Sunday posts which I wrote between 2011-2015, during the 150th anniversary of that dread event, so that my readers (and I) can get a refresher.  But, for now, let's remember one thing - a short speech.


  1. I learned more about our Civil War when I visited Gettysburg in the mid-70's than I learned in school. I fear that we are headed in that direction again in the future.

  2. When I hear hear the name Edward Everett, I think of Edward Everett Horton, the actor (who was probably named after the orator). (I know, totally off topic...)

  3. The oratory heart thread is welcomed in this day and age for sure!

  4. What an amazing post, Alana! 156 years ago, yes, but words NOT to be forgotten. And especially not in the world we see around us now.

  5. We tend to gloss over history, don't really take the time to understand what it was truly like to live back then. I hate how divided we are now, how huge the chasm between sides has grown and how we can't even count on our leaders to fight us towards each other.

  6. We don't use the word score that way anymore. Let's change that.

  7. Lincoln's words have always almost brought me to tears. Lovely post.


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