A few words remembered forever

A few words remembered forever – importance of the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln

Jeff Meyer

Abraham Lincoln was coming down with the flu as he got on the presidential train leaving Washington on November 18, 1863. But he believed the trip was important, so he rallied himself and none of the other passengers suspected he was ill. In fact, it was almost a given: The weightier the occasion, the funnier the president’s jokes. He took things so seriously that he desperately needed humor to keep a balance.

And Lincoln needed humor that day. For he was headed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War had taken place back in the heat of July. The thousands of soldiers killed there had been hastily identified and buried, and the war moved on. Now they were being interred in a more befitting way, and the cemetery was being dedicated.

In many ways Gettysburg had been a decisive battle. It was the Confederacy’s first real attempt to claim northern soil. If the Rebels succeeded, the thinking went, the war would turn in the South’s favor. If the North were able to rout them, it would be a different story. The Union soldiers had won, but the price had been heavy: 23,000 Northerners and 20,000 Southerners lay dead.

Lincoln understood the spiritual and emotional cost of the loss of a son, a father, a brother. He had written the first half of his speech back in Washington on a piece of White House stationary. He soon excused himself to write the second half.

Lincoln had learned that he would be speaking near a Large honeylocust. Lincoln loved trees; they spoke to him of home. In fact, when he was a candidate for office, he had been tagged “the railsplitter” because of the volume of logs he had split on the frontier, both for fences and cabins. A good many of those logs had been honeylocust. In fact, visiting another Civil War battlefield, Lincoln had noted the similarity between men and trees, saying he liked trees best when they were not in leaf, as their anatomy could be studied.

That November day was overcast; the honeylocust was devoid of leaves. and cast no shadow. The main speaker, Edward Everett, spoke for two hours, which was not uncommon in those days, and the audience was appreciative. They were just stretching when Lincoln stood and began to speak. His remarks were so brief that when he finished and sat down, most of the audience wasn’t sure whether he’d actually started his speech yet. There was applause, some heartfelt, some confused. But the reporters who were there had an inkling of what they’d just heard, and the full text of the speech was soon printed. And reprinted again and again.

The words of Lincoin’s Gettysburg Address, spoken near that honeylocust, were like a balm for the grieving nation. Today we still remember the words he spoke that day

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon 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 battlefield 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 this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate we cannot 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 this government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.”

Jeff Meyer directs AMERICAN FORESTS’ Historic Tree Nursery. To purchase a Gettysburg Honcylocust or other historic tree, visit www.historictrees.org or call 800/677-0727.

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