Gettysburg address transcends time: Its meaning 150 years later - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Gettysburg address transcends time: Its meaning 150 years later

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(Source: Library of Congress) (Source: Library of Congress)
(Source: Library of Congress) (Source: Library of Congress)

It's a speech that every American has read at some time in their lives.

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.

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was given 150 years ago on this day to honor the men who drew their last breaths on that ground just four months before.

"There was absolute carnage," said Mark Smith, the University of South Carolina's Distinguished Professor of History. "Carnage in a scale Americans had never witnessed before: 50,000 dead and injured, 8,000 bodies lying on the ground, uncovered, after three brutal days. It took weeks to bury those people -- weeks."

"Those fields were beyond description for most people," said Smith. "The stench of death lingered for weeks. The visuals were just horrifying. You could see the ground rise and fall as the bodies bloated. And then there was the 5,000 mules and horses. So the entire landscape was a landscape of death, lacking any sense of nobility.

Smith said when President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the cemetery at the Gettysburg battlefield, he had to restore a sense of nobility to those killing fields.

"And that's what he did," he said.

Smith said the true poignancy in the speech was its brevity.

"And in that speech of 272 words, what he managed to do was transcend the place he was in. He managed to recognize the valor of the men who died at Gettysburg, but he managed to make it something beyond that moment, beyond that space, beyond Gettysburg. To speak to a nation that had lost catastrophically, not just South or the North, but a nation. So the significance of the speech is that it transcends its particular place or locale. It went beyond its time.

"It had to be short. Its brevity is its strength."

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.

"I think that ability to rise above that moment, rise above that carnage, to cleanse that carnage and make it something bigger and more ennobling of those killing fields is the true significance of that speech," said Smith.

Smith said Lincoln's words were carefully chosen.

"Lincoln was a man who understood the power of words and he chose them very carefully," he said. "This was a very serious, very thoughtful speech that is the product of great thinking and not the strike of lightning."

As Lincoln chose his words to honor those who died from both sides of the battle, he was also sending a message to the nation.

"What Lincoln did is champion that notion of equality, that drive for equality, that desire to achieve equality," said Smith. "He made it part of the American fabric. Prior to the Gettysburg Address, of course, most of the people did believe in the desirability of equality, but it wasn't as anchored or thorough or as accepted as it was after Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. So what he did was elevate the idea of equality as an American national ideal in a way that nobody prior to that point had."

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.

"He had to do something that spoke to the dignity of the men who had fallen, that spoke to the dignity of the nation that founded those same men, that had produced those same men."

Lincoln walked a fine line in his word selection. He wanted the war to end, and he didn't want to rise the ire of southerners.

"He was acting as, what he saw, as the President of the entire nation, even though the South had seceded," said Smith. "He was talking beyond North and South. He was transcending the space. And he always had a difficult fence to walk, a very fine line. One of the reasons that he ends up at Gettysburg is that he wants to be there. And it's not just to commemorate the fallen. There were political issues at stake here."

"He's always trying to finesse, trying to keep things together, trying to speak to multiple audiences at once."

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.

And like Lincoln, perfection comes in the efficiency of words. Need anything more be said?

"The way Americans have reacted to it since the Civil War is really to incorporate what it means to be American, and that's why it's often referred to as one of the greatest American speeches," said Smith.

Note: Several versions of the Gettysburg exist, and there has been some disagreement on the final version. The version included in this story comes from "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln" edited by Roy P. Basler. It is believed to be the final version.

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