Abraham Lincoln


By David Madden,
Director, The United States Civil War Center
Lincoln Fellowship, Luncheon Keynote Speaker, 133rd Gettysburg Address Commemorative,
Gettysburg Pennsylvania, November 19, 1996

A few weeks ago, having stayed up late considering my talk for you about the Lincoln poems of Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay and others, I woke just before daylight, and lay there, imagining what Lincoln might have said to us this afternoon. The poets have fallen silent. I ask you to listen now to Lincoln’s speech, as I imagined it:

Six score and 26 years ago, I left my son on his sickbed and boarded the train for this place, with some “appropriate remarks” in my pocket.
“The world will little note nor long remember what we say here today.” Time seems to have proven me wrong when I said that on this date back in 1863, but it is fitting that I repeat it over a century later, today. For this annual Gettysburg’s Address Commemoration is a relatively modest affair.
I went on to say that “the world can never forget what they did here.” The irony that gives me pause is that I, and what I said, are today far better remembered than the thousands of common men who are buried out there. The few Generals who are buried out there are remembered, and “it is fitting and proper that we do so.” Ironically, however, better remembered are those who did not die out there and were not buried out there. General Lee did not die here. General Meade did not die. General Longstreet is not buried out there, nor Pickett, nor Hancock. During the past 146 years, I have had more than my full measure of monumentalization on the grand scale, in bronze, marble, music, canvas, in the words of poets and playwrights. For all that and for this occasion I am not ungrateful.
Several famous poets have taken as their mission to depict my life as that of the archetypal common American who rises from obscurity to the presidency in a time of crisis and who bodies forth from that great height the qualities, virtues, and frailties of the common man. It is a melancholy irony that their success has been, finally, to turn this common man into a godlike creature, whose utterances, in my address out there, among other occasions, are often confused with scripture, and for that you can imagine the difficulties I have had in explaining myself to folks where my spirit otherwise rests in peace. Something deep in my spirit must turn away from all that respectful attention to actual scripture, to the invocation in Ecclesiasticus : “Let us now praise famous men.” The prophet does indeed praise “Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies.” The world is populated with statues of such men. But, saith the prophet, “some there be which have no memorial; who perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.” We have given them here at Gettysburg a habitation and a name, but “in a larger sense,” they are all missing.
Today, having paid homage both to leaders and to men of the rank and file, and having eaten food blessed by our Lord and having had fellowship together, let us go from this place, lifting our voices higher and louder and longer in praise of those legions of other “famous men.”
Because the numbing irony is this: that although the world has forgotten–having, indeed, never truly known–the individual common men who died here, it has indeed not forgotten what happened here. In countless poems, novels, and works of history, this nation and the world have bodied forth this battle as an expression of the conflicting ideals and violent actions of the entire war. But the fate of each individual common man has been ever thus, to be, from the start and ever afterwards– in the digging of tunnels, the raising of pyramids, the building of cathedrals, the erection of bridges, and the execution of great wars–overwhelmed and obscured by the magnificence of the things they made and the events they created.
Scores of years ago, I said out there that “In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.” As I think about that oft repeated sentence, I feel with a pang the implications of the sense of that phrase “larger sense.” Indeed, it was a sense so “large” that I was forced to confront the brute fact that it was impossible to pay to each common man the homage we pay with relative ease to those famous men we regard as leaders. Mindful of this impotence of conception and language, I sometimes wonder whether the sentence that follows was not my rhetorical avoidance of that brute fact: “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” True enough, in some sense, but given the almost biblical reverence accorded my speech over the century and more since that day, did I not, in that sentence, bury for myself and thus for you the corpse of my own impotence? Ecclesiasticus, it is true, assures us that the righteousness of those who have no memorial “hath not been forgotten,” that “their name liveth for evermore” in the Kingdom of Heaven. In a democracy, however, we have an obligation not to leave such remembrances to heaven alone, but to search until we find a way to resurrect such men and to keep them alive in our private and public identities, day by day.
In the nation’s capital, I haunted the telegraph office out of an acute sense of missing the war, day by day, desperate to experience it with the immediacy of the telegraph, as if feeling the pulse of the battle. It was the damned not knowing….
Even that one young foot soldier who marched to more battlefields than any other and who lived to be a hundred years old missed each of those battles and all the war because of the nature of battle, in which a man sees only fragments, with the disconnectedness of the pieces of an exploded shell.
And the Generals standing on a hill or behind a hill or leading a charge against a hill missed the war because even with cavalry giving them eyes over the countryside and even with map makers giving them omniscient views as if from the sky, they saw little more than the soldier who sees the bent back of the man in front of him. And the talking wires of the telegraph told me only what the Generals, with imperfect vision going into battle and imperfect comprehension afterward, could gather in nervous-quick time.
The reporters missed the war, the sketch artists who were eyewitnesses to the battles missed it, and the photographers who seldom arrived until after most of the dead had been buried, missed the war.
Civilians in all walks of life, men, women and children, even those standing outside their burning homes, watching and wailing, missed the war, damned to know only their own limited fate and to pick up fragments from reporters and sketch artists.
Imagine the child’s confused perception of the war, the different views of the children in the South from those in the North, and you begin to understand the scope and depth of what all who survived the war missed.
In the several decades after the war, men, women, and children saw more and more of the artists’ and finally the photographers’ scenes, and read the memoirs of the Generals and officers, and heard the memorial speeches–Americans took in more facts, saw more images, stored them up, mulled them over, and then began the long forgetting, made more painful in the South by punitive Reconstruction, prolonged three times longer than the war itself.
And still, each and all missed the war, because the pictures, the diaries, the memoirs, the histories, and the 128 volumes of The Official Records of Union and Confederates Armies sift down finally to little more than fragments found on the field.
Then over the years, into the next century, into the hands of Americans came more and more of the common man’s accounts, views from the battlefields, the hospitals, the prisons. And more and more, came the woman’s perspective from the home front, the refugee’s, the widow’s, the spy’s, the mother’s, the nurse’s perspectives. And still, pervading all those testimonials is that nagging apprehensiveness that drove me to the telegraph office–I am missing the war, I am missing the war…. I have missed the war.
But what of the historians and the biographers, trailing along behind, collecting, arranging, filling in background? The fragments have insisted on remaining fragments– the whole, the vision of the whole, has remained unachieved, with so much missing.
Americans missed the war that most shaped its destiny by remaining mesmerized by the fragments they picked up, each individual from his or her own field of vision, isolated handfuls of facts about battles and leaders and this aspect or that aspect, by, as a public, from generation to generation, remaining obsessed by the role of ancestors or by the look of artifacts, those literal fragments–swords, guns, bullets, uniforms, flags–found on the field.
I cannot brush away something I saw in the two hours I wandered the battlefield that morning here in Gettysburg and even as I listened to speeches and even as I spoke–the sight of the scavengers at Gettysburg, thrilled to pick up, possess, and count the value of fragments. Americans have been immersed in seemingly endless talk, an endless stream of books, endless novels and poems that repeat, and repeat, and repeat, as if damned to seek knowledge, understanding, and perhaps even the vision in the self-same icons, tokens, runes and ruins. Everything collected together is still only a collection of fragments found on the field.
The painful paradox is that both the men who fought here and all people who have read about the battle of Gettysburg missed the war. For the war is not only the details of battles such as Gettysburg, the questions of strategy and tactics employed well or ill by the leaders in that battle, but the meaning of the whole war as it reveals itself in each individual American in each creative and destructive act from the day of my address to this day’s commemoration of that address.
Because they are human beings, damned always to know far too little but aspiring to the vision of angels, Americans missed what matters most: the understanding and the vision that are the motive for action. Americans have failed to make the nature of this war and its lessons part of their everyday lives as they deal with America’s problems. Let your vision henceforth be not to celebrate the War and “these honored dead” as an interesting time in history but to meditate on the War as a prelude to action.
Let us come to the realization at long last–six score and 26 years later–that the task, long neglected through imperfect understanding, which must now be taken up, is to look at the war through fresh perspectives, through every conceivable perspective. Implore nurses, lawyers, physicians, journalists, dentists, teachers, merchants, laborers of every type, scientists of every type, engineers, geographers, secretaries, politicians, architects, teamsters, even optometrists to look at the war from their points of view and meditate on, talk about, and publish their visions.
Implore the Native American, the African-American, and each of every other ethnic group–Irish, Jews, Asians– to look at the war from their own unique points of view. Implore women, black and white, of the North and the South, to filter the war through their perspective. Most neglected are the children. Collect all those tiny, hidden, ignored fragments that reveal the plight and perception of children during the war and throughout all the years since. It’s the damned not knowing, you see….?
The goal in the coming score of years is to help the nation achieve at long last an understanding of the war commensurate with its effect. The purpose is to miss the war no longer, by understanding more fully what caused the war, what the war in all its aspects was, and what dark problems and bright prospects for America came out of the war, and how Americans have been damned by the not knowing to repeat all the dark problems unto this day and how Americans have been damned by the not knowing to fail to achieve the bright prospects that often come out of terrible calamities.
The task is to examine and understand all aspects of the war in such a way as to actively pursue solutions to the problems of today–violence, racism, mistrust of government, to target a few. Because that task is so difficult to perform, I took then and Americans take now, refuge in compensatory rhetoric. Democracy being, as we know, an unending experiment in problem solving, let us now search until we find ways to praise the common man–and not only those out there, but all the other men and women, black and white, who fought, suffered, endured the five most insane and most glorious years in American life.
I came here today to reiterate my challenge of six score and 26 years ago: “It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated, here, to the great task remaining before us.” Americans have indeed, from time to time, “resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain,” and from time to time this nation has indeed had “a new birth of freedom” that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” But in those bronze likenesses of myself found throughout this nation, you may have noticed that my hands seem a little restless. The sadness often remarked in my face is sometimes there in the palm of your hand. Because something is missing. Something essential is missing, and that is an answer–in a larger sense– to a question implicit in my address: “Can a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure?” With all the progress and advances, prefigured to a great extent in the War itself, that this nation enjoys, the severe problems that have their roots in the War and Reconstruction continue to plague these United States. Let us now so remember the war as to reveal ways in which the bright prospects and the dark problems of the war evolved, directly and indirectly, out of the War and Reconstruction.
Because something has been missing. Something essential is still missing, not from the record, the written, photographed, drawn, mapped and remembered record, but from our individual and national consciousnesses. What is missing is compassionate imagination. It is not dull facts alone that make history dull and forbidding to young minds, it is dull imaginations. Where imagination is dull, compassion is numb. The compassionate imagination is vibrant, it searches, and it aspires to a visionary truth that would suffuse our very identity, day by day. How do we arouse that now dormant compassionate imagination? We, as “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” must seize upon the enormous record of facts about the War and Reconstruction and subject that inert record to the life giving force of imagination guided by compassion. Our goal is enlightenment, but our purpose is action guided by that enlightenment.
What enlightenment do I imagine? An enlightenment that comes from having recognized the problem: that Americans have not, from the end of the war or ever after, tried to examine all aspects of the war, succumbing instead to the lure of romantic battles and leaders. The fitful and fragmented attention given the war over the years and the prevalent emphasis on battles and leaders and memorials have prevented Americans, North and South, from achieving a coherent vision of the causes, consequences, and effects of the War. “The great task remaining before” you, ‘The living,” “that cause” to which I referred in 1863, has been transmuted over scores of years into the task of achieving that all-encompassing vision of the war to which I have just referred.
Every aspect of the War and Reconstruction set in motion forces that determined all our dark problems and our bright prospects, and lack of understanding has darkened our prospects, or slowed our progress, and prevented us from solving our problems. Racism, violence, economic instability, mistrust of government–these lingering problems await solutions that can come only from a thorough, imaginative, compassionate understanding of the War and its aftermath.
Reconstruction, more than the war itself, impeded action against our problems. Reconstruction prolonged and worsened the dark effects of the war and discouraged a more enlightened pursuit of our bright prospects. The action in which I urge you to become engaged is the solution of the problems of society today.
In the score of years to come, dedicate yourselves to the achievement at long last of a profound reconciliation of the men and women of the North and the South. During my time, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves by law; in the next century, I implore all Americans to free ourselves of racism at the deepest level of the human spirit.
Is it too late? As St. Paul is fond of answering his own rhetorical questions: God forbid. May I urge you as leaders to reexamine, redefine, and revise your perspectives on this War? Encourage each American to look at the war first through the lens of his or her own occupation, profession, or discipline of knowledge. That act will help each person to become enlightened as to all the facets and meanings of the war, to make an understanding of the war a part of his or her own identity, day by day.
We know that in every war, given the nature of war, the common soldier in his way and the general in his way miss the war as it happens and recall it imperfectly. Do not then their children fill in the record and the vision? Let us turn again to Ecclesiasticus and listen again to the verse: “They are become as though they had never been born.” It is the phrase that follows that renders my mind restless: “and their children after them.” The children, too, became “as though they had never been born.” Imagine the thousands of narrow graves out there on that battlefield filled also with all the forgotten children and descendants of the men who died here. Because they failed to see and understand and thus to shape their private and public identities in light of what was there to see and understand, the children and descendants of the common man also missed the war, and are, in a “larger sense,” missing in action, dead in vain.
The war did not end in the cemeteries, or with the publication of books, it went on through Reconstruction– up to this very day. The aftermath has yet to begin. Let it begin in the minds of the children of the common man. Let there come a day when Ecclesiasticus’ lament will no longer apply: “some there be… who perished… as though they had never been born; and their children after them.”

© 2010 David Madden


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  One Response to “Abraham Lincoln”

  1. Upper Canada in War of 1812 – WikiTree

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