By Bryce O. Stenzel
Special to The Free Press
---- — Mankato author Maud Hart Lovelace once referred to the month of November as “the gray time.”
The skies are often cloudy and cold. The dead leaves have fallen from the trees and lay scattered over the frozen ground. Flowers have withered, and have turned brown.
And it is also a month of solemn anniversaries: All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, Veterans’ Day, Remembrance Day at Gettysburg, John F. Kennedy’s assassination day, and Thanksgiving Day. Kent Gramm, author of “November: Lincoln’s Elegy at Gettysburg” summed it up well when he wrote:
Modernity was ripe in November 1863 when Abraham Lincoln stated for all time the high hope and sheer faith of his world. One hundred years later, by the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, that world was completely gone. Despite their differences, the 1860s and 1960s were mirror decades: both times of civil war, of passions and politics and violence, of leaders like meteors who burnished the skies and were shot dead… November begins in grief, and ends in hope. It is the drear month of faith. November courage runs in the blood of saints. These are the days of November.
President Lincoln received his official invitation to attend and deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the new national cemetery at Gettysburg, Penn., on Nov. 2, 1863, only two weeks before the ceremony was to take place on Nov. 19.
If he had wanted to, Lincoln could have found many reasons to turn down the speaking engagement: he was not the keynote speaker (famed orator Edward Everett was given that honor); Tad was ill and Mary Todd Lincoln did not want the boy’s father away in case Tad took a turn for the worse; and the war was grinding on with no end to it in sight.
Two days before delivering his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln signed into law the bill authorizing the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. The next day, he left for the cemetery dedication, traveling by rail the 120 miles between Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg. His decision to make the trip at all, and to do it a day in advance, requiring an overnight stay in Gettysburg, illustrated Lincoln’s earnest desire to reunite the war-torn nation, in the same manner as the transcontinental railroad bill.
Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg transcended both time and place. They remain the quintessential Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day address as much for the things Lincoln left out as for what he included.
Lincoln made no mention of North and South. To him, the men who fought at Little Round Top, the Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield or Cemetery Ridge were all Americans, regardless of where they came from or which political views they held.
He made no mention of Gettysburg at all, simply a general reference to the fact that “we are met on a great battlefield of that war.”
He made no reference to slavery — that divisive issue that split the nation, and continued to divide it almost a year after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
He made no reference at all to the U.S. Constitution — a document that still protected slavery as private property, prior to the passage of the 13th amendment.
Instead, Lincoln drew his inspiration from the Declaration of Independence — a document that contained the revolutionary statement, “all men are created equal.” In a larger sense, Lincoln argued that America was undergoing its second revolution or “new birth of freedom,” as he described it. The American men who died at Gettysburg and others like it all over the world were the catalyst for the spread of the democratic ideal of human equality. In order for their sacrifices not to have been in vain, it was up to the American people, both then and now, to rededicate themselves to the same principles upon which the nation had been founded, and for which these men had fought.
Not everyone embraced Lincoln’s vision, then or now. Oramel Barrett, owner and editor of the Harrisburg Daily Patriot and Union newspaper, published the following remarks on Nov. 24, 1863, in response to Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg:
We have read the little speeches [sic] of President Lincoln … delivered on the occasion of dedicating the national Cemetery, a plot of ground set apart for the burial of the dead who fell at Gettysburg … He acted naturally, without sense and without constraint, in a panorama which was gotten up more for his benefit and the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead … We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.
It should be noted that Barrett, a staunch Democrat, had made up his mind years earlier that Lincoln (Republican) was a fool; Barrett did not actually attend the cemetery dedication. On the other hand, Edward Everett, the chief orator of the occasion, who listened to every word Lincoln spoke as well as being witness to the audience’s response, wrote Lincoln a follow-up letter in which he stated:
“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 judgment of history has favored Everett’s view of the president’s remarks.
Now, 150 years later, the Gettysburg Address is regarded as one of the finest expressions of the English language, and has been described as the final formulation of the American ideal.
The world did note and has long remembered what was said and what Lincoln did there.
The Gettysburg Address 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. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and 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.