Gettysburg 150 years later

Gettysburg photo by Judge John Stevens


By John B. Stevens Jr.

Special to The Examiner


It was November 1863 in Gettysburg. The southern Pennsylvania town of 2,400 had become the center of America’s destiny. Four months earlier, on the first three days of July, a great Civil War battle for the ages had been fought. It had stretched from one side of Gettysburg to the other. It culminated July 3 with the Confederate Army’s devastating collapse across the one-mile open field between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge in what came to be known as Pickett’s Charge. Battleground sites with the names of Culp’s Hill, Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Ridge, Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Big Round Top and Little Round Top would become famous.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the “high water mark” for the Confederacy representing its most northerly advance in the war. It would retreat from Gettysburg and operate generally in a defensive fashion for the rest of the war.

Gettysburg Battle deaths numbered 6,000. Another 21,000 were wounded and many subsequently died of their injuries. After four months, the carcasses of animals killed in the battle and evidence of hurriedly dug shallow graves were still evident.

Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin wanted the remains of the soldiers brought together and interred at one place in Gettysburg. Seventeen acres were purchased on Cemetery Hill to bury the soldiers from both sides.

A plan was agreed upon for a ceremonial consecration of the grounds Nov. 19, 1863. Massachusetts Sen. Edward Everett, a prominent Bostonian and outstanding orator, was selected to deliver the oration. He would become minister to England and Secretary of State.

At the time of the dedication, the Gettysburg cemetery was not under federal authority. However, when the formal invitations were sent to the extended list of national figures, President Abraham Lincoln’s acceptance came as a surprise. He was asked to add “a few appropriate remarks” to the ceremony.

Nov. 19, 1863, was an ideal autumn day in Gettysburg, with a few clouds and the temperature slightly above 50 degrees. The proceedings began at noon. An estimated 20,000 were present. A touching prayer was offered by United States House chaplain, the Rev. Thomas Stockton: “As the trees are not dead, though the foliage is gone, so our heroes are not dead though their forms have fallen – with their personality they are all with Thee, and the spirit of their example is here.” The Marine Band then played a song.

Sen. Everett was introduced and rose to speak. And speak he did — for almost two hours. Everett related the funeral customs of Athens and the purposes of war. He detailed the Gettysburg Battle events and honored those who fought. Few remember what he said. When he concluded, a hymn was sung.

Then President Lincoln was introduced. He unfolded the two pages of text he had written. The president spoke deliberately and clearly in his high pitched voice. His address consisted of 10 sentences. Those immortal words lasted but two minutes. It ended so quickly that when the president took his seat, a reporter sitting nearby asked, “Is that it?”

As we have come to appreciate, it wasn’t the length but rather the substance of his pronouncement that became so meaningful. It was a product of heartfelt, careful thought, meant to calm fears and sooth the suffering of wartime and to inspire hope in American ideals. Its message is as significant today as it was 150 years ago.

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.

President Lincoln was referring to 87 years before, July 4, 1776, and the Declaration of Independence. This great nation was born out of the declaration of fundamental human principles. These are the natural rights of free people, divinely endowed by our Creator, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is interesting to note that the right to pursue happiness is no guarantee of happiness. Fair opportunity for all is our grant, for what good are free people if they are not 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 virtues articulated in the Declaration of Independence are worth fighting for. They would have little meaning otherwise. The Constitution begins with “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union …” President Lincoln was dedicated to preserving the Union. The great achievement by free people of popular government must not fail.

We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place for those who have given their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

More than 600,000 Americans were killed or wounded in the Civil War. The sacrifice of lives in wartime is the greatest of sacrifices. Such are made in faith and hope of victory for the noble cause. Courage in battle should always be honored, as we, the living, are the beneficiaries of the ultimate sacrifice. Thus, President Lincoln venerated the most treasured offering of man, namely, sacrifice for the good of others.

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 power to add or to detract. The world will very 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.

Here, President Lincoln exposes his humility, understating the everlasting significance of the day’s event. However, he rightly understood that it is not necessarily what is said, but rather what is accomplished that is the essence of achievement. Dedication is not enough. The principles of Democracy require constant vigilance and continued resolve.

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 here 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.

Therefore, it is for succeeding generations to carry on the legacies of our ancestors’ vision of popular virtues. The Preamble to the Constitution sets forth American ideals in six ways: (1) to form a more perfect Union (we are collectively fellow Americans); (2) establish Justice (be fair with each other); (3) insure domestic Tranquility (live in peace); (4) provide for the common defense (act with courage); (5) promote the general Welfare (help those in need); and (6) secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity (consider how our actions will affect the rights of others, especially our children). Americans must dedicate themselves to constantly striving to fulfill the Constitutional mandate by living the American ideals.

It calls to mind another great speech given four score, 17 years later by President John Kennedy at his inauguration:

Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe. Now the trumpet summons us again. Not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call for battle, though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation – a struggle against the common enemies of men: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

President Lincoln’s call to Americans to remember our sources of liberty to save our Union, has now expanded to call upon Americans to liberate the problems common to all. He wholeheartedly believed this nation’s existence should represent the greatest ideals of civilization. The Gettysburg Address’s foremost message inspires us to remember previous sacrifices and constantly build upon past achievements by our actions, building a greater nation and better quality of life. These are not just fundamental lessons for Americans, but rather the blueprint for humanity’s shared existence and progress.

After the address, President Lincoln returned to Washington, feeling poorly. It was later discovered that he had developed a mild form of smallpox. The Gettysburg Address has become a legendary, great speech – short, inspiring, and unforgettable. It was perfect.


John B. Stevens Jr. is judge of the Criminal District Court in Jefferson County, Texas.