November 19, 1863. That was the date of the Gettysburg Address, the speech delivered by President Lincoln during the Civil War.
That remarkable speech was given at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, several months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the bloody Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863.
There were nearly 8,000 battle deaths during those three days of fighting in southern Pennsylvania, about 60% of them being Confederate soldiers led by General Robert E. Lee.
More than 27,000 combatants were wounded, with more than half being Union soldiers, commanded by General George G. Meade. What a horrible time in the history of this country!
At the end of the battle, those 8,000 human bodies were strewn across the ground around Gettysburg, a town of only 2,500 inhabitants. Because of the stinking decay of those bodies, most were just covered over with a thin cover of dirt—many to partly resurface later.
Something had to be done. That was the reason for making the National Cemetery and dedicating it on that Nov. 19 afternoon 150 years ago next Monday.
President Lincoln’s speech, which was fewer than 280 words long (less than half the length of this article), has been called “the words that remade America” in the subtitle of Garry Wills’s 1992 book “Lincoln at Gettysburg.”
As has often been pointed out, Lincoln’s main motive in the Civil War was not the freeing of the slaves, although he later embraced that purpose also. His main desire was to preserve the Union, forming a true union of all the people of all 35 states that existed at that time, including the 11 that seceded in 1861.
According to Wills, until the Civil war, “the United States” was invariably a plural noun, as in “the United States are a free government.” After Gettysburg, it became singular, as in “the United States is a free government” (p. 145).
Because of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, people in this country came to understand both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in a new way. That is why Wills avers that the Lincoln’s short speech “remade America.”
What significance does the Gettysburg Address have for us in the U.S. today? For starters, the country needs to recognize anew the importance of the union and of all the people within the country.
Now, as in 1861 when the Civil War began, there are great economic tensions and polarity within the country. Just last year more than 125,000 Texans signed a petition saying they wanted to secede from the Union!
Historian Arthur Herman has written about the possibility of a second civil war in this country, beginning perhaps in 2014. In July 2012, Herman (b. 1956) wrote an article about this coming civil war between “the Makers” and “the Takers.” In other words, it would be class (economic) warfare.
Then, in January of this year, FoxNews.com published a second article by Herman titled, “We’re now one step closer to America’s coming civil war.”
Let’s hope Herman is wrong and join together in the resolve to protect the basic human rights, dignity and equality of all people in this nation. Let us do so in order that, in Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
To remake America now, we all need to heed Lincoln’s appeal at the close of his Second Inaugural Address as he called on the nation to act “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”