“Four score and seven years ago.”
Those opening words to a famous speech are as fresh today for Americans as they were 150 years ago, when uttered in Evergreen Cemetery, atop Cemetery Hill, just months after the greatest battle on the North American continent.
The stench of rotting flesh and death still hung in the air over the south-central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, when a gaunt and unhealthy President Abraham Lincoln stepped from a train and eventually onto one of the most consecrated grounds — outside of Arlington — in American history.
We continue to mark the sesquicentennial of America’s great Civil War through 2015, and we all should pause and think back, since a substantial number of us will not be around for the 200th observance in 2061.
We remember Pearl Harbor, remember the Maine, remember the Alamo and remember George Washington crossing the Delaware.
Remembering perhaps the greatest speech in world history should give each one of us pause.
Following the epic Battle of Gettysburg that Americans just marked July 1-3, in which both Union and Confederate forces suffered staggering casualties, reburial of soldiers from battlefield graves began on Oct. 17, 1863.
A consecration of the National Cemetery at Evergreen Cemetery was planned for Nov. 19, and a committee formed for the event invited President Lincoln. “It is the desire that, after the oration, you, as chief executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks,” went the invitation.
I have always been one of those people who thinks less is always more — when it comes to newspaper columns, layout and design and particularly when it comes to speeches.
Orator Edward Everett was to make the Gettysburg Address on that cloudless and sunny November day, which had attracted upwards of 20,000 people to hear the president speak.
Everett, a Massachusetts politician, pastor, educator and orator of considerable note, was the featured speaker of the dedication, delivering a now seldom-read 2-hour, 13,607-word oration.
For his part, Lincoln’s address may have seemed an after thought.
Following the train ride from Washington, Lincoln had mentioned to secretary John Nicolay he felt dizzy. Another assistant, John Hay, noted during Lincoln’s speech at the cemetery the president had ‘a ghastly color’ and he was sad, mournful and almost haggard.
Afterward, boarding the train to return to the Capitol, Hay said the president was feverish and weak with a severe headache. A protracted illness followed, including a mild case of smallpox, which was a most common disease of the day.
However, in his 272-word, 2-minute address on Gettysburg’s Cemetery Hill — just a ways north of the spot that had seen Union troops repulse Confederate infantry during Pickett’s Charge — the large crowd, and eventually the nation, stood still.
It was a moment in time even the most disinterested scarcely could fail to note.
As in much of history, rumor is as great a part of it as is fact. It was said by some Lincoln quickly penned his address on the train ride from Washington. In fact, the president took considerable time to craft his few words, having started it in the White House, continually refining it on the trip to Gettysburg and the night before its delivery.
In fact, scholars have found at least five different drafts of his great address. As any good editor will tell you, the best writing constantly must be honed and edited and refined. And, Lincoln may have been the best editor in American history.
The president’s address, on the heels of Everett’s wordy and hours-long speech, was not an afterthought, as some have made out. It was carefully crafted by Lincoln, who had wanted to deliver a lasting memory to all those who had fallen — at Gettysburg and up to that point in the Civil War.
His talk was to conclude the commemoration in a short statement.
Maybe it was too short for those in attendance, who may have been lulled by Everett’s address into thinking another long, laborious discourse was to come from the president’s lips.
I’m quite sure the brief 272 words stunned those hearing it, who were used to standing hours on end as politicians prattled and talked their way around issues of the day.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” Lincoln said.
His closing words of that brief address are legend.
“... 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.”
Historically speaking, these words still stand the test of time.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking