Gettysburg is hallowed ground. It is bathed with the blood of 51,112 men whose lives were laid on the sacrificial altar during that 3 day carnage to preserve national unity.
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln stood in the newly created Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to dedicate the resting place for the husbands, sons, grandsons, and brothers whose dying blood had watered those green, open fields just 18 weeks before. Witness William Rathvon recounted that Lincoln was “serious almost to sadness”. He spoke slowly, weighed down with the burden of a war that pitted kinfolk against each other. He was ill; he had been dizzy and weak, and would complain of a terrible headache on the train ride back to Washington, D.C. He had written and re-written his notes, polishing his thoughts for the dedicatory address he would deliver.
He sat quietly as keynote speaker Edward Everett, America’s oratorical genius, delivered from memory two hours of verbal velvet to eulogize the fallen. The battle and its fulcrum, the hill called Little Round Top, became the hinge on which Northern victory in the great Civil War had swung. Col. Joshua Chamberlain and Lt. Holman Melcher, along with the 358 men of the 20th Maine and the 83rd Pennsylvania, had held for victory on that rocky point. On July 2, their ammunition exhausted, they had rushed with bayonets into the enemy lines to honor their orders to hold the hill at all costs—terrible costs.
The 242 words of healing balm that history would call the Gettysburg Address have become a national prayer to honor not only those men, but all who have sacrificed for the Union. “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.
The efforts of those who spoke that day were puny, by comparison, “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.”
Lincoln carved the path for the Union’s future. “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…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.” That measure of devotion was the unity of the nation—the sanctity of the constitutional contract that bound them together.
President Lincoln closed with a challenge for the nation—an assignment to preserve the liberty and the political system America had created. “…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.”
President Lincoln’s challenge to us has not been withdrawn. We still operate under his executive mandate to initiate a “new birth of freedom…(under a) government “of the people, by the people, for the people”. We have the responsibility to preserve the United States Constitution, to operate under the universal morality—the knowledge of right and wrong and the commitment to live by that knowledge—that create its foundation so we can have the liberty and inalienable rights it showcased 225 years ago.
This was the message Lincoln gave us 150 years ago today: the Union, the nation matters. Preserve it, defend it, sacrifice for it.