Lincoln’s short but powerful speech can still inspire a nation

One of the most famous speeches in history was given 150 years ago on Nov. 19, 1863 during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln stood in Gettysburg, Pa. to dedicate a new cemetery where so many war dead were buried after the bloody three-day battle earlier in the year on July 1-3, 1863.

Now called Remembrance Day, thousands of people, including local Civil War reenactors, gather in Gettysburg each year during November to commemorate those soldiers and President Lincoln.

A solemn reverence is felt when walking through Gettysburg National Cemetery. The Civil War section is extensive. Many headstones are marked with an individual’s name. These are the lucky ones compared to those stones that are marked “unknown,” and only identified by their uniforms. These soldiers are more fortunate than those that rest in places known only unto God; those who crawled off and died in obscure underbrush and rock.

The devastation of the Battle of Gettysburg is something that we can only imagine today. It was a nightmare for those that lived and died there. With over 50,000 casualties in three days, acres were strewn with dead and dying men and animals from both the Union and Confederate forces. Farms and fields were destroyed; the town and many residences were turned into hospitals. Those in charge of burial detail and medical care lived through a time that would certainly never be forgotten by them.

There are many eye-witness accounts. One woman who volunteered as a nurse to help after the battle described what she saw and did. Her account is chronicled by the National Park Service in their library series called, “This Consecrated Ground.”

In part, she wrote, “A sickening, overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead, on which the July sun was mercilessly shining, and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler, until it seemed to possess a palpable horrible density that could be seen and cut with a knife.”

She further described the scene of swollen and disfigured bodies that “robbed the battlefield of its glory.” She and others attempted as best they could to give care and some mercy to those dying and separated from those who perhaps had a chance to survive, as they all still lay on the ground. Medical tents and nearby wagons were filled with amputated limbs. Working on the battlefield was a monumental task that seemed never-ending.

“So appalling was the number of wounded, so helpless seemed the few who were battling against tremendous odds to save a life, and so overwhelming was the demand for any kind of aid that could be given quickly, that one’s senses were benumbed by the awful responsibility that fell to the living,” she wrote.

Two percent of our nation’s population died in the Civil War. A greater number survived, but with physical or mental wounds.

Our nation as a whole suffered greatly as brother fought against brother in a country that was still young. The country had fought for liberty not so long before in the Revolutionary War. President Lincoln highlighted that in his famous speech that day in the midst of the Civil War. His short speech is now known as the Gettysburg Address.

All men are created equal was a principle set forth in our nation’s Declaration of Independence in 1776. When Lincoln spoke, it was four score (20 times 4) and seven years, meaning 87 years, later.

When Lincoln made this speech, from the federal point of view, the war had shifted from merely preserving the union and stopping the spread of slavery to abolishing it once and for all.

Who would remember the Gettysburg Address after the dedication of the new cemetery? Many people there could not even hear it. It was a short speech of only a couple of minutes that followed a two-hour oration by Edward Everett, a notable speaker of the time.

However, the Gettysburg Address’s powerful words reminded the nation that the dead were not to die in vain. Their blood consecrated both the ground and the effort to see the war through to the end. Remembering God and a nation of freedom for all, Lincoln captured the resolve to make sure the nation would endure.

The Declaration of Independence was 237 years ago. The Gettysburg Address was 150 years ago. Neither are times to be forgotten by today’s citizenry or cast off as ancient history. Regular folks fought for freedom, some of whom, with great sacrifice, “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Certainly many of these people were from New York.

Make it a good week and don’t take our Constitutional freedoms for granted. Be involved in family and community, keep informed and speak out against injustice, take pride in hard work, and keep the faith; for it is those attributes that have made America strong. Our best days do not have to be behind us.

Mary Burns-Deas writes weekly for the OBSERVER. Comments may be directed to