Friday, January 26, 2007

Placing Historical Events in Their Proper Context: Lincoln's Gettyburg Address - What was he saying?

I've been thinking about this a lot recently, having just read again Lincoln's speech at Cooper Union and the Gettysburg Address, as well as restarting Shelby Foote's narrative trilogy on the Civil War. Regarding Lincoln's two speeches, there couldn't be two different pieces of oratory. One, the address at Gettysburg in the midst of the Civil War, has some small number of words (somewhere around 250 or so), while the speech he delivered at Cooper Union almost three years earlier has over 7000! But even though historians laud his Gettysburg Address as one of the most important speeches any American has ever given -- we may never have heard it -- had Lincoln not been successful at Cooper Union in February of 1860, giving a speech where he successfully laid out to the rich, eastern establishment, the illegality of slavery and what the Founding Fathers meant in the Constitution...thereby proving to them that he was the best Republican Party candidate for the election of 1860. And what makes the Cooper Union speech so much more remarkable is that, Lincoln had to be talked into giving the same speech again in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire in order to convince those Republicans he was a proper candidate before he was allowed to go back home to Illinois!

Placing moments of history into their proper perspective and understanding their context isn't something that's easy to do, and frequently the moments and their meaning are misplaced in chronology or simply mis-remembered after a passing of years. As school children, we were all taught about The American Civil War, and what an impact President Lincoln had upon this country by issuing The Emancipation Proclamation & with his Gettysburg Address. But rarely do we put ourselves in the place of Lincoln as events played out during those four terrible years, let alone on the day he dedicated a national cemetery, and told the country something very important. Think about it for a minute, for most of you, if I asked the importance of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, many of you would say that it helped the country mark a battle that occurred at Gettysburg near the end of the war, or that it consecrated a cemetery. If I asked you about the Emancipation Proclamation, you would say that it freed all the slaves, you might even say that it ended the Civil War. You'd be wrong on all counts. Here's some background..........

Thirteen months before the Gettysburg Address, The Emancipation Proclamation was initially issued on September 22, 1862, and freed slaves in states still in rebellion on January 1st, 1963. Did you know that if any southern state would have returned to the Union before January 1863 the slave owners in that state would NOT have lost their slaves? It's true! [In actuality, it wasn't until the last state (Alabama) ratified it on December 2nd, 1865 that what we now know as the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery, was proclaimed law on December 18th, 1865.] Even though now it is heralded as one of the 2 or 3 most important documents in our country's history, few people understand that what the Emancipation Proclamation immediately accomplished (in today's vernacular) was really, really "piss-off" the Confederacy. It made them frantic to inflict as much damage on the Union as possible, so that either England or France would join the southern cause, or the losses to the North would be so great that Lincoln would have to seek terms.

Although the war wasn't going wonderfully well for the Confederacy early in 1863, every southern victory was making it worse "up North." Take New York City as an example. Because the Union Army needed more soldiers, conscription lotteries were scheduled to be held, and riots broke out in the working class sections of the city. White working men resented having to go to war and leave their jobs and families, especially since more and more freed blacks were arriving in New York every day, and the wealthy could buy their exemption from war service for $300! As they saw it - the white guy was the one catching it on the chin here. From the time of Lincoln's election in 1860, the Democratic Party had warned New York's Irish and German residents to get ready for labor competition when southern blacks would flee north. One New Yorker was heard saying after being arrested, "We're sold for $300 up here, whilst down there they pay $1000 for a Negroe! I ain't fightin' Lincoln's nigger war!" White workers saw their lot in life declining, as freed slaves saw their futures becoming brighter. The fear and anger that had been building since the emancipation had been issued, culminated in the burning and destruction of property as well as the lynching of some blacks during the period of July 13th. to 18th., 1863.

Adding to the fear felt in New York and the rest of the northeast was the knowledge that exactly two weeks prior to the start of the draft lottery, nearly 21,000 men had been killed or wounded in a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg. 7,000 bodies (from both sides) covered the battlefield after the 4 days of fighting. "The Bloody 4th" it was called, and reports and pictures were just now reaching Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Some of the stories were carried first hand by wounded Union troops who had been transported 200 miles East to New York City.

In September 1863, the Confederacy was desperate for another victory. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had beaten the Union troops at Manassas, Virginia but had lost to them at Antietam, (Sharpsburg, Md.). During the one day battle at Antietam on September 17th, nearly 23,600 Americans from both sides were killed or wounded in the bloodiest single day of combat in our country's history. And on September 19th and 20th., in northern Georgia, at a small water crossing called Chickamauga Creek, two other Union and Confederate armies would suffer over 34,600 casualties in the bloodiest two days of fighting this country has ever known. Over 79,000 casualties in a month and a half.

All this was weighing on Lincoln during the Fall of 1863 when he accepted an invitation to help consecrate a national cemetery at the site of the Gettysburg battlefield. He couldn't stop his heart from aching for all of the soldiers both north and south, that were fighting and dying in this war. He hated a few of his northern Generals for being too timid; he hated Robert E. Lee for not accepting the Generalship of all the Union armies at the beginning of the war; and he knew that regardless of whether they considered Jefferson Davis "their President" - those dead Confederate soldiers out there in the cemetery and all those still fighting alongside Lee and Longstreet, were as much his responsibility now, as any soldier fighting in the Union blue uniform!

So........put yourself in that place for the next few minutes. Here you are in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It's November 19th. 1863, a clear cold fall day, and you and 15,000 other northern citizens have gathered to hear some bands and some speeches at the consecration of "a soldiers cemetery." It's pretty chilly, and your leather soled shoes are getting wet from tramping around on the muddy ground. There is a fetid odor which you cannot help but notice. You catch it every now and then as the breeze moves it across these former fields of battle. It lingers here because of the on-going attempts to identify and then re-bury the more than 7,000 soldiers and 3,000 horses and mules that fell at Gettysburg just 4 months earlier. As you walk around the site and look at the trees and hills you can't help but notice the unmistakable evidence of rifle & cannon fire. The "pocked" markings on the buildings, the splintered fence posts, the shattered tree limbs and stumps, the scarred stone walls and building sidings, the hard to conceal destruction that has been hastily - if not perfectly, repaired. In two places along the edges of the battlefields, military hospital tents now being used as rudimentary forensic laboratories, remain. Gettysburg townspeople complain about their inability to get the blood stains out of their wooden floors, or off the walls of their houses and barns which had all been pressed into service as field hospitals during the four days of war that marched through their lives. As you continue to walk your eye catches a glint of something in the recently disturbed field, you reach down and pick up a dull yellow brass button with an "I" embossed on it. You put it in your pocket, and only later do you find out it is a Confederate infantryman's uniform button. You wonder if he is still alive, or if he's one of the 7,000 buried beneath your feet?

Since there are no loud speakers, all 15,000 of you press together so that you can hear what's being said. Nobody, save for the dignitaries is sitting. You're all standing around with wet feet in the cold squishy mud. One speech by a short pudgy man lasts almost two hours! He is suppose to be a great orator, but you think he just likes the sound of his own voice. Someone is announcing that The President is going to speak and with that everyone pushes in even closer. It's hard to see with all the other people wearing their hats. But you can hear, and oh what you hear! There is beauty and pain in the simple words this tall, gaunt man speaks.

"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."

A woman in the crowd thinks........."I hear such beauty in his words....and such sorrow....and a pleading."
"He is telling us that we must continue this fight because of all these dead soldiers who have died for the cause of freedom and for this country!"
"He is pleading with us to re-dedicate ourselves to this cause that isn't finished!"
"He is telling us that the war must continue until we are victorious or we may not have a country!"
"Oh my! Oh no! He is telling me that my son may still have to go! Oh my son, oh no!"

As President Lincoln looked out over that crowd of 10,000 to 15,000 people, he must have had a hundred questions flying around in his head. Some of the people he shook hands with as he arrived were wounded veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg, many of them were parents, all of them were voters and citizens of "his" country. What would all these people think about what he was going to say? "Even though we had won here at Gettysburg, and at Antietam, we had lost at Chickamauga Creek, and we had lost so many times before. And look at the cost each time!" He knew that he had to tell them that the war was far from over, that it had to continue. But for how long he didn't know. What if Grant and Sherman weren't victorious in their southern campaign? Even though it's reported that Lee's army had retreated deep into Virginia, there was nothing to stop Lee from returning North. Hell, he had to travel 85 miles due north from Washington D.C. to get to the Gettysburg battlefield! If Lee could come that far north once - he could surely do it again!

Lincoln knew that even though the Confederacy had its own government, and its own President - it was ultimately his job to finish this war & re-unite the country. More than anyone else (I believe) Lincoln knew the consequences that failure would bring. If the Confederacy won, England surely would try to "re-absorb" the colonies into itself. France might also try. But moreso than any General on either side, moreso even than Jefferson Davis (who'd often said he'd flee to Mexico if things looked bad, and reform his army there for yet another campaign), Lincoln knew and lived with the certainty that if the Union "cause" was not successful, it would be his actions and Emancipation Proclamation that facilitated the dissolution of the United States.

Perhaps the "message" his address carried explains the wide range of opinions that appeared the next day in newspapers. "Unionists," and abolitionists heard shouts of support and long applause, while states rights supporters and those tired of the fighting heard "boo's" - still other's are certain that at the end of the speech - there was silence. It strikes me odd that there could be such a divergence of opinion regarding a two minute dedication. You've just spent 10 minutes back at Gettysburg in November, 1863 - what did you hear?

...... As he left that cemetery on November 19th., President Lincoln could only remember the face of one woman in the crowd. As was the custom, she was wearing a dark dress, a hat, coat and gloves. When he had spoken of the responsibility of the living to carry on the cause of the dead, she had realized almost immediately what it had meant. He had seen her gloved hand fly to cover her mouth, and she had jerked upright so suddenly he thought he himself must have jumped watching her! She had reacted, he thought, almost as if his words had slapped her. "A parent" no doubt. Now as he made his way back to his carriage, shaking hands and nodding his thanks - there she was in front of him. She looked at him and he thought for a moment she was going to cry. But she regained herself and as she shook his hand she said, "Thank you Mr. President for your speech. May I give you something?" He nodded as she reached into her coat pocket. When she brought her hand back out she placed in his hand the worn brass button she had found in the field earlier that day. "I found this on the battlefield this morning," she said. "And I'm sure the soldier this belonged to thanks you for your words as well." She half turned away, but then quickly turned back and said, "Mr. President, my son Joshua is just 15, and wants to do his duty, but I'm afraid! His father is with General Sherman outside Chattanooga. What should I do?" Lincoln knew now he had been right, his words would be taken hardest by parents. Taking her hand once again he answered, "Please M'am, for the time being pray for your husband, pray for the country and for the success of the Union forces. And when the time comes, if the time comes for Joshua to enter the Army, please get in touch with me." He returned the button she had just given him and said, "Bring me this button then, and I will see you; and I promise we will pray together for him - and all the rest."


I can't be certain about the meeting between Lincoln and the 'woman with the button.' That last paragraph is a "drama" that I created. It's what I think could have happened had a parent heard Lincoln's consecration oratory at Gettysburg. But I can be certain that Lincoln, and all the other President's who have sent service men & women into harms way, share a burden that none of us can ever imagine. I'm also certain that no President ever does it lightly or willingly. Whether that decision was made 144 years ago or yesterday, it's just as difficult. Whether it was President Lincoln weighing the 618,000 dead Americans who fell during the 4 years of our Civil War, or President Bush weighing the 3000 men & women who have died in a similar period during of The War on Terror.

The only thing worse than sending brave men & women into battle - is knowing that the war MUST continue.
Placing moments of history into their proper perspective. What do you think?

Dum Spiro Spero