At the site of the worst battle of the American Civil War,learns the power that just a few words can have.
Funny things, words. Sometimes so many can be used to mean so little, thrown away to fill space or fluff egos. And sometimes so few can mean so much. The right thing said at the right time to inspire, jolt or offer a sorely needed crumb of comfort. Carefully chosen or blurted from somewhere intuitive inside we like to call the heart, these words can transform lives, relationships and even the tide of history.
On a time-blackened plaque, the raised lettering doesn’t stand out as perhaps it should. The idyllic afternoon sunshine seems at odds with the sombre hilltop setting; the fields of gravestones sweeping to the left are sprinkled far too heavily with the unmarked. But the 272 words on that plaque, words that give a sense of purpose to otherwise senseless slaughter, are some of the most powerful ever spoken.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was supposed to be tokenistic contribution amongst far bigger speeches from others. The president was invited to chip in, if he wanted to, at the opening of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in the shell-shocked Pennsylvania town that had played host to the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War.
Poor Gettysburg had found itself in the line of fire by accident. Neither army had planned to fight there; it just became unavoidable when they spotted each other sneaking around. After three days of heroic defence, artillery-fire smog clouds and suicidal mass charges, the bucolic fields and ridges of Gettysburg were littered with corpses. The battle was arguably the turning point of the war – the Confederate advance into Union territory was reversed – but the toll was horrific. The concept of a memorial cemetery to honour the dead and effectively apologise to the town was born in the aftermath.
Today, Gettysburg is like a Civil War theme park. Numerous memorials are spread around the old battlefields, yet all the key attractions are swarmed with school groups. It’s one of those places that adults think kids should go to, even though it’s precisely the opposite of what most kids are interested in. A day trip Blue Peter.
Nevertheless, the Visitor Center is really good. The Morgan Freeman-narrated introductory film sets the hairs on end, and the museum gives a surprisingly balanced overview of the civil war and its causes. It strikes home that the war between North and South was actually about the West. The overriding question was about whether slavery should be allowed in any new territories added to the Union.
But the one room that really brings a lump to the throat simply has a picture of Abraham Lincoln on a large white screen. An actor’s recording of the words Lincoln had written in Washington, redrafted the night before in Gettysburg and spoken at the memorial cemetery’s consecration ceremony propel the goosebumps upwards.
In those 272 words, Lincoln managed to give solace to the bereaved. “These dead shall not have died in vain,” he assured. And he was right. For all the senseless, foolish wars fought throughout time, this one did have a purpose. It was about standing up for a principle – that “all men are created equal” and an ideal – “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
They were just words, but at the same time, so much more than words. Funny things.
The Gettysburg Address – those 272 words
“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. We are met on a great battle-field 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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
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. 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 government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
This story was originally written for Roundtheworldflights.com.
All content copyright David Whitley.