Lincoln and Veterans

I am a current resident of Emporia, Kansas and Veterans Day remains an important day for our community.  Our university shuts its doors, the town holds parades and events and many of the city merchants close their doors in honor of those who serve our country.  The date, November 11, emerges as a significant day, for Congress declared that as a day to remember “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’.”  In 1953, the city of Emporia, under the leadership of shoe salesman Al King, wanted Armistice Day to expand to recognize anyone who was a veteran.  The Chamber of Commerce took a survey and discovered that the city was willing to suspend business for a day to honor our veterans.  The board of education followed suit, announcing that schools would not hold classes as well.  Congressman Ed Rees of Emporia helped author and pass a bill that created Veterans Day and recognized Emporia as the founding city of the holiday.  Pres. Eisenhower signed the bill into law on May 26, 1954. 

What did Lincoln have to say about veterans?  When he arrived in Gettysburg, PA on November 19, 1863, the President was not invited as the keynote speaker, but someone who could offer a few remarks.  The great orator, Edward Everett, spoke for nearly two hours, discussing the history of the battle of Gettysburg and even used maps.  When Lincoln arose, he spoke 277 words in under 5 minutes and offered the most poignant words offered about the sacrifice men make in war. 


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.

Lincoln starts his address with a biblical reference (in terms of numerology) and connects the nation not to the Constitution, but to the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln saw the conception of the nation in 1776, not 1787, and thus Jefferson’s words, that spoke of all men being created equal and that those men are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuite of happiness, as the foundation of the country.  The Constitution specifically ignored African Americans, Native Americans and women.  The language of the Declaration seems to be on a higher moral and ideological plane, which is where Lincoln wanted to take his address. 
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.
Lincoln saw that the Civil War would test not just the citizens, but the very idea of the United States and how it was constructed in 1776.  Could the nation survive a war that ripped it in half?  Lincoln then reminded his audience of where they were, the largest battle of the Civil War, that had over 50,000 casualties in the course of three days, making it the bloodiest of the war for the United States.  He then reminded the audience why they were there, to honor the veterans and what they had done, given their lives so that the country would survive. 

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.

In this portion, Lincoln argues that while the recognition of Union soldiers and their sacrifice is a fitting thing, nothing that can be said or done that November day in Pennsylvania could do more than what the men who gave their lives have done.  In fact, Lincoln pointed out that the world would probably forget what was said that day (they haven’t) but that the sacrifice given by the Union soldiers would last as long as the nation lasted.  So what could the public do to make sure the men did not die in vain?  Lincoln argues that the war must continue, that the United States must persevere and succeed in the war effort in order to make the sacrifices of the Union families worth the struggle. 

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.

Lincoln’s resounding conclusion talks of “these” honored dead.  Lincoln is standing in a United States cemetery, where the Union dead lie in rows.  Of note, the Confederate dead lie in trenches on the fields where they fell.  Thus, Lincoln offers a partisan speech.  Yet, he is President of the United States of America and his goal that day was to recognize what sacrifices U.S. soldiers had made.  Now, it was up to the nation to take up the cause, to re-unify the nation under a new birth of freedom.  By November  1863, that new nation would be a free nation, that upheld Jefferson’s ideology by abolishing slavery, allowing all men to be perceived as being created Lincoln.  Lincoln certainly set out a lofty vision for the country.  He knew that the scars of slavery would take generations to heal.  He knew that the pain and sacrifice of war would take a generation to heal, as well.  Yet, the war had to continue, the pain would have to continue because the nation owed it to its veterans and their sacrifice. 

As we pause as a nation to remember our veterans tomorrow, November 11, let us remember that the wars we fight have lasting ramifications well beyond this generation.  Our wars should always be noble in their cause, scope and reasoning and that we always should have a plan to execute an end to the conflict that honors the sacrifice of those who fall in battle.  Lincoln knew that the U.S. would do that after the Civil War and woudl expect future generations to do the same. 



One Response to “Lincoln and Veterans”

  1. Michael Says:

    Seven score and five years ago today, Lincoln delivered that most memorable speech.

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