November probably packs as much history and civics into a thirty day period as any other month, if not more. It starts with Election Day, moves forward into Veterans Day, the anniversary of the Mayflower Compact, then most of us leap forward to Thanksgiving, and all that it means. There is another notable November day – November 19, 1863.
Much was made this summer about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Known as the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, it left over 50,000 bodies behind when the troops moved on. These were the dead, lying in orchard and field, rotting in summer heat and humidity. The people who lived in the little town and its environs did what they could to bury them. In many cases, they had no idea whether the person had worn blue or gray – it was a human body, left behind. Historical accounts suggest that there was not a field, a garden, or other plot of land which did not become an informal cemetery; they also suggest that few of the deceased had the luxury of a private entombment, but were put in the earth with whomever was nearby in death.
The residents of Gettysburg asked the Pennsylvania governor to help them by purchasing a portion of the battlefield for a formal cemetery, a place where the bodies so haphazardly buried could be moved and given the honor that they deserved. The original intent was that it be a graveyard for the Union dead; the practical result was that many were unidentified – by either name or side. The dedication was supposed to have been held in October, but the main orator, Edward Everett, needed more time to prepare his comments. As an afterthought, President Lincoln was invited to “say a few words” to set these grounds aside for a sacred use.
The actual dedication was held on November 19, 1863. Everett spoke for two hours (all from memory!) to the gathered group of 15,000 – a huge congregation of people for a rural area in that day and time. The words Everett spoke have long since been forgotten, as have been the musical pieces created for the day. What has not been forgotten, however, are the words penned and spoken by the President no one really expected to come. The Gettysburg Address, all 272 words of it delivered in two minutes, have become a quintessential part of American history - and something most of us memorized, and few recall! Lincoln’s comments before the delivery indicate he wanted to remind us of the importance of unity, of sacrifice, and of duty.
When he finished, the crowd was silent. They had applauded the music, as well as Everett’s oration (perhaps because it came to an end??!!) – but they were silent at the end of the President’s words. He left, believing that he had been a total failure, and returned to Washington. The next day, Everett sent him a telegram saying “I wish that I could flatter myself that I came as close to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes” – and the words which helped to define a nation then, and perhaps still do, became part of our history.
In honor of the 150th anniversary of their utterance, five Presidents have recorded them, and various schools around the country have made a commitment to their memorization. Take the time, not just to scan them quietly – read them aloud to yourself or another. Let the themes of dedication to other than self and self interest resonate.
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 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.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .