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Friday, November 19, 2010

The People, Yes

(The dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg,
November 19, 1863)

(Detail of the picture above: the only confirmed photograph
of President Lincoln at Gettysburg — he stands hatless just
below the man with the sash and beside the man in the top hat.)

Today is the anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

On July 1, 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces collided by chance with Major General George G. Meade’s Union forces just outside of a sleepy hamlet in Pennsylvania. In the three days of fighting that followed, the countryside around Gettysburg was transformed into the bloodiest battlefield of the war, with almost 50,000 casualties evenly distributed between the two sides. It took months to bury the fallen soldiers and to clear away the carcasses of the dead horses.

This was the decisive battle of the Civil War. Gettysburg was the farthest point north the Southern army would ever get. Lee’s gamble was breathtaking. Had he won this battle, his army would have been within striking distance of Washington. Instead, his army never really recovered from the loss.

More than four months later, there remained many dead yet to be buried. In this atmosphere, on the afternoon of November 19, Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The ceremony began with Edward Everett’s delivery of a long oration. Then Lincoln spoke briefly.

Lincoln’s remarks are the ones that have echoed through history. In a note the next day, Everett told the President, “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 Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, upon 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 it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. 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 hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, 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.


He was a mystery in smoke and flags
Saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
Yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
Yes to the hopes of government
Of the people by the people for the people,
No to debauchery of the public mind,
No to personal malice nursed and fed,
Yes to the Constitution when a help,
No to the Constitution when a hindrance
Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
Each man fated to answer for himself:
Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
Must I choose for my own sustaining light
To bring me beyond the present wilderness?

Lincoln? Was he a poet?
And did he write verses?
“I have not willingly planted a thorn
in any man’s bosom.”
“I shall do nothing through malice: what
I deal with is too vast for malice.”

Death was in the air.
So was birth.

~ Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), American poet, writer, and biographer of Lincoln

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