Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

November 18, 2013

Lincoln’s speech for the ages celebrates 150 years

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — In November 1863 Abraham Lincoln spoke of American sacrifice in words that will forever celebrate government made of, conducted by and originated for the people.

Once again, the eyes of America look to Gettysburg. The 150th anniversary of the great battle on July 1-3, 1863 has been duly re-enacted and today Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will be celebrated in mild fall weather almost identical to that memorable November 19th, four months later, when Lincoln immortalized the heroic deeds of Americans North and South.

Illness may have played a part in the Gettysburg saga. Rumors that General Robert E. Lee suffered a mild heart attack that clouded his judgment the night before the decisive third day and cost the South a crucial advantage still circulate.

Lincoln was not heard clearly by many listeners during the great speech, and it is said the president’s voice was weakened by a touch of smallpox.

A century and a half later, the town itself is spangled with streamers and bedecked with bunting in honor of the occasion. It seems that many of the estimated 7,560 residents are out and participating in the festivities. One who will not be in town, however, is President Barack Obama, who declined an invitation to speak.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell will speak on behalf of the administration and author James McPherson will also be a keynote speaker.

“I’m a little disappointed,” said one resident, “but it may be like Lincoln in the middle of the war — the president is having a tough year.”

Obama is not the first president concerned about trying to follow up Lincoln’s ageless eloquence. Woodrow Wilson, leader during World War I, confessed private misgivings about speaking on the golden anniversary in 1913. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the 75th anniversary event in 1938 and rededicated the battlefield not specifically for either side but “on behalf of the great veterans of the blue and the gray.” Dwight D. Eisenhower settled here after serving as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II but refrained from a public address. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton are among other presidents to visit without officially commenting on the occasion.

Adequate description is an awesome task at Gettysburg.

Katie Lawhon, management assistant at the Gettysburg National Military Park, said Monday, “Our mission is not only to preserve what we have here at Gettysburg but to help citizens understand its impact on the past, present, and future of our country. We look at this week as a tremendous opportunity to share what the ‘few minutes’ of the Gettysburg Address has come to mean to the United States and the world.”

 With 163,000 men — 93,000 Union soldiers commanded by George G. Meade against some 70,000 Confederates led by Lee — it remains the bloodiest single struggle in American history. There were more than 51,000 casualties including wounded and missing. More than 5,000 southern soldiers were killed in an hour before reaching the fabled stone wall during Pickett’s Charge.

On July 4, Lee, Gen. James Longstreet and the battered Army of Northern Virginia began a dismal retreat in a driving rain, stretching out some 17 miles. Meade did not attack, and so the North lost a chance to end the war that eventually dragged on for another two years.

Gettysburg itself was a mess — there were 10 times the number of casualties to deal with than the town population of 2,500. Fences were torn down, bodies, equipment, artillery, and debris littered the area. It took days to bury the bodies and many were placed in shallow graves later uncovered, requiring reburial. More than 3,000 dead horses were strewn across the field. As the animals decayed or were burned the stench sickened many residents for weeks to come.

Plans were made to dedicate a National Cemetery in honor of the soldiers and to recall the Union victory. The principal speaker, Harvard College President Edward Everett, asked for more time and so the date was moved to November 19. Lincoln was asked two weeks before the ceremony to make some “appropriate remarks.”

While Everett spoke for an hour and 57 minutes to the crowd of 15,000 Lincoln uttered his 269-word, 10-sentence oration in less than three minutes. He worried that his comments, completed in a house owned by David Wills in the nearby town the night before, were not equal to the occasion. Slowly, and increasingly over the years, his poetic words have taken their place among the greatest in history.

“Lincoln’s words were heartfelt — they touched those present who had lost so much and remain as one of the ultimate tributes to liberty in America,” concluded Gettysburg Military Park Ranger Mark Atkinson Saturday near the spot where Lincoln immortalized the battle.

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