From His Eloquent Address, Lincoln Forges a Nation

Gettysburg Address

The Hay copy of the Gettsyburg Address

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  Tens of thousands of words have been written analyzing these 272 words from every perspective – contents, language, style, form, historical impact, you name it.  I’d like to share three observations about the address as well as its present-day relevance.

Abraham Lincoln chose to ground his address not in the Constitution which codified the original sin of slavery in its content but in the Declaration of Independence with its promise of equality for all.  “Four score and seven years ago” sets us firmly in 1776 and ties the battle at Gettysburg to the armed conflict of the Revolution.  It speaks to the earlier, more philosophical document as the source of the American proposition, not the flawed and compromised Constitution.

Interestingly, Lincoln does not argue that the great cause of the Civil War is the continued union of the states.    Rather, he takes the existence of a “nation”, not just a union of states, as a given.  Up until that point in history, the United States had been perceived as primarily a union of individual entities without a specific national identity.  The common phraseology of the day was “the United States are”. But Lincoln refuses that characterization and presents the United States as a nation, a single entity. He uses the word nation five times, reinforcing the concept of wholeness and unity as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.  We were conceived as a nation.  It is not to be debated or disputed.  And, following the war, the common usage becomes “the United States is”.

In the final sentence (and there are only 10 sentences in the entire address), Lincoln affirms clearly and unequivocally the great cause of the Civil War, to grant a “new birth of freedom” to a unified nation.  While Lincoln soft-pedaled emancipation as a cause of war at the beginning of the conflict for political reasons and even stepped back from full emancipation in the Emancipation Proclamation (freeing slaves only in those states in rebellion), here he gives full voice to the ultimate cause and purpose of the War.  We need to be “dedicated to the great task remaining before us . . . that this nation . . . shall have a new birth of freedom.”  There it is.  He’s talking about freedom from the horrors and tyranny of slavery.  That is the task remaining before us and the cause for which those at Gettysburg died.  More broadly, I read this as an affirmation that it is a cause worth dying for because it is bigger than any individual.  It is a sacrifice in the service of proving that a government built on freedom for all can endure.

Gettysburg dead

The cemetery at Gettysburg

And how is all that relevant today?  After all, it’s been 150 years.  The Civil War is long over. But is it?

I would suggest on this 150th anniversary that the great cause of the Civil War is one we still must fight for on a daily basis – the new birth of freedom for all of us – because daily we are bombarded by attempts to take away that freedom:  denial of voting access particularly to the poor, elderly and minority populations; denial of choice in basic women’s health care to women in this country, especially the poor; corporate oppression in the form of low wages and insufficient benefits, restricting upward mobility; the control of the 1% over our elections and our elected officials; the very real slavery of human trafficking even in the United States; the invasion of our privacy by out-of-control government agencies.  Every day in dozens of ways, we risk losing a piece of our birthright of freedom. And every day we have the opportunity to fight for freedom, oftentimes not for ourselves but for others who have smaller or weaker voices.  It may not cost us our lives but it does require our sacrifice – our time, talent or treasure.

On this significant anniversary I urge all Americans to take the time to re-read the Gettysburg Address and to “take increased devotion” to the cause of a new birth of freedom for all Americans.

The original text of the Address appears below:

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.

*Two of the five copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handdo not include the words “under God”.


Pondering Antietam

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg.  More than 81,000 soldiers engaged in the battle and, in less than 24 hours, almost 23,000 Americans were killed, wounded or missing, a greater casualty toll than any other day in American military history.  The 3650 who died in battle would be followed in death by an additional 2471 who subsequently died of their wounds.

I chose today to start blogging because I didn’t want the day to pass unremarked.  I can’t say I’ve always been interested in the Civil War. I studied it in high school just like everyone.  I grumped and complained when my father dragged us to the Petersburg battlefield.  I couldn’t figure out why an ex-boyfriend insisted that I see the Battle of Atlanta diorama when I went to visit him.  And frankly, some of those Civil War re-enactors seemed, well, just a bit TOO enthusiastic.

But in 1990, along with 40 million other Americans, I watched Ken Burns’ Civil War on PBS and the magnitude of the horror of those years held me captive, like watching a car wreck that you can’t tear your eyes away from.  Combined with my fascination with Abraham Lincoln, the PBS series lit a passion in me to understand better how our country ever found itself in a civil war and what could possibly drive men to kill their countrymen in wholesale slaughter.

Over the last 22 years, I’ve learned so much more about the Civil War, most particularly how it still affects our national identity today.  But that’s subject matter for another blog.  I also came to realize that in order to fully understand how men could commit such carnage, I really needed to walk the ground that they walked and try to glean some idea of what they felt.

And so I came to Antietam National Battlefield in August.  Antietam is probably the best preserved of our battlefields, Gettysburg included, because so little of the modern world intrudes on it.  The small town of Sharpsburg is still very small.  And there are no chain motels or restaurants just off the main road.  With the reforestation of the North Woods and other National Park Service improvements, the ground looks very much like it did in 1862.

Like Gettysburg, the Battle of Antietam took place in three distinct segments but, unlike Gettysburg, it all happened in one day, not spread over three.  Luckily for me, the Cornfield, site of the first horror of the day, was planted in corn this year.  It’s leased to farmers by the NPS and for soil conservation reasons the crops are rotated, since corn seriously depletes the soil of valuable nutrients after several years.  But this year it was corn, easily 7 feet tall, rustling in the breeze as I tramped through it, trying to imagine how terrifying it must have been to be a Union soldier, marching blindly through that cornfield with no idea of what he would find on the other side.  Of course what he found was a line of Confederate soldiers who mowed down the advancing Union troops  like wheat.  By the end of the back-and-forth battle several hours later, there was not one stalk of corn standing in the entire field.  Not one.  They had been destroyed by artillery fire, bullets and falling, dying men.

The battle moved south, to a sunken farm road that the Confederates used as cover to pick off Union soldiers coming unsuspectingly over a ridge.  They slaughtered hundreds until the Union soldiers got the upper hand and fired along the length of the road, trapping the Confederate soldiers like fish in a barrel.  By the time the battle ended, it was said that you could walk from one end of the road to the other and never touch the ground.  You would be walking only on bodies in what would become known forever as “Bloody Lane”.

Bloody Lane – 1862

Bloody Lane – Antietam

The final encounter occurred further south at the Antietam Bridge over the Antietam Creek.  Union soldiers had tried all day to take the bridge but it crossed the creek at the foot of a steep hill and the Confederates were entrenched at the top. Regiment after regiment tried to cross, only to be decimated by rifle fire.  Finally, late in the afternoon, the Union soldiers took the bridge and drove the Confederates off the heights.  General Ambrose Burnside had commanded the Union troops and the bridge was transformed into the Burnside Bridge for posterity.

And so I walked the battlefield, all three sections of it.  I tried to imagine the sounds, the smells, the pure horror of the day.  On a beautiful August afternoon, it’s hard to visualize the landscape covered in corpses.  But the rustling of the wind in the Cornfield and the huge number of butterflies that hover over the landscape speak of souls departed and whisper of lives destroyed.

Antietam was the first battle recorded by photography.  Alexander Gardner, from Matthew Brady’s studio, arrived on the battlefield within days.  The Union, as the victorious army (but at what price), had buried their own dead, but the Confederate dead were left unburied. Gardner photographed the scenes and, for the first time, Americans saw the direct results of the war that some of them had so devoutly wished for.  What had been the private grief of individual families of dead soldiers now became a very public trauma.

Antietam was, in many ways, the first major turning point of the war. It was the first time the Confederate Army had invaded the North. And it had been resoundingly repulsed.  The Marylanders that Robert E. Lee thought would welcome the Confederate Army with open arms were not so inclined.  The slave-holding section of Maryland was farther to the east.  The local citizens  tended to support the North and in fact a neighboring section of Virginia would soon be spun off as the new state of West Virginia, decidedly in the Northern column.

The Battle of Antietam reinvigorated the Union Army which had suffered a serious of defeats earlier in the year that had left them disheartened and in disarray.  And it reignited popular support for the war in the North, enough so that Abraham Lincoln could publish the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation which he had been holding back until the war news turned more positive.  With the publication of the Proclamation, the war took on a new dimension.  It was no longer only about preserving the Union; it was now also about extending the promise of freedom to America’s slaves.

And so I left Antietam as I left Gettysburg, still no closer to an answer of how men can force themselves to undertake such dreadful work for, in most cases, what?  An idea? Most of these men’s homes were not threatened.  Most of the Southerners didn’t own slaves.  How were they talked into this?  Why didn’t they just go home?  Why couldn’t they have worked it out?

Questions for another day that still ring down the years.  I still wonder, how can people be convinced to fight and die when they’re not directly threatened?  How can they fight for things they don’t ultimately believe in themselves?  They’re questions that will keep me tromping battlefields and looking for answers.