September 20, 2002. Friday. Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I’m with a dozen guys on a “guy” weekend. We flew to Baltimore where we caught the Orioles game last night. Tomorrow we’ll be in State College for the Penn State game (the weekend’s main attraction). Sunday is Pittsburgh and the Pirates game at brand new PNC Park. So why, in the midst of all the beer, bad food, sports and talk about women, did we stop our 12-seater van here? Gettysburg won the coin toss. Good choice, fellas.
I’ve always been fascinated by Lincoln. Studied him. Been to Ford’s Theatre and Petersen’s Boarding House across the street where he was taken and laid on a bed too short for his long frame. Where he died the following morning. I was born exactly 89 years to the day later. I pay attention to such synchronous events in connection with my life.
Lincoln looms large.
Walking through East Cemetery Hill, I read stone monuments that describe what took place here July 1, 2 and 3, 1863. This battle was the turning point in the Civil War. I imagine the Union and Confederate soldiers here, behind trees and rocks and fences in these rolling hills. I walk across the street to the National Cemetery, established to honor the war dead on the very ground were Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address in November, 1863.
I read the entire address on a large stone monument, which took all of two minutes for Lincoln to deliver almost 139 years earlier (after some other fellow had given a speech of several hours). I’ve read this speech a hundred times. Today, it is as though I’ve never heard the words before. Reading them here, in the place where these soldiers gave their lives consecrating this ground, gives me chills and brings the words alive for the first time in my life.
What is astounding is that he thought at the time that he had disappointed the crowd that had come to hear him. He had no idea what his words would come to mean to future generations. Today, I realize that I had no idea how important it is for people to come to this place and read the words here in this place and understand the importance of “place” being in context with the words.
After leaving the memorial, I walk the 300 yards to the actual spot where Lincoln spoke; a monument built by Kentucky in honor of her dead. People leave Lincoln pennies on the monument in honor of our 16th President. I reached into my pocket and had a lot of change, but only one penny. I set it down on the marble.
When half of our group agreed they were ready to leave, four guys were missing. We called and they said they were looking for the location of “Pickett’s Charge.” Turns out they were much farther away than any of us knew. I had no idea just how large this place is. The battlefield goes on forever. We drive to where we thought they were and we just keep driving. Mile after mile through battlefield after battlefield. Everywhere there are monuments to the dead. I’m in awe. So many people fought over such a huge area. There was something like 50,000 casualties and close to 8,000 deaths during the three day battle that took place here.
I find that mind-boggling.
Take a couple more minutes, will you? Read this. Then ask yourself how “we the people” are doing.
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.