To many standing in the sunshine that cool November day, there was an eerie feeling about the place. It was quiet now, except for the droning voice of the speaker at the podium, and the fields that stretched for miles around them were all empty and hushed. Still, it seemed as if the sounds of battle still hovered and if one listened closely, one could hear their ghostly echoes - the screams of the wounded, the agonized moans of the dying, the explosion of guns and cannons, the yell of the battle cry, and the sobs of men who were watching their comrades, their leaders, even their own brothers and sons, being killed before them.
It had been four months now since the most frightful battle of the Civil War had been fought outside the town of Gettysburg. The battle had turned the course of the war towards an inevitable Union victory, but at terrible cost to both sides. Over 40,000 soldiers had been buried where they fell, blue and gray together. Then there had been a movement to have them reburied and their graves marked, making Gettysburg a National Cemetery. At the dedication ceremony this November day, a well-known orator named Edward Everett had been asked to give the keynote address. Then the President had been asked to add a few words.
Everett had been speaking for two hours to a large crowd that had grown accustomed to the elaborate speeches of the 1860's. Just the same, when he finished the crowd was beginning to get restless. They paid little attention when their tall, lanky president in his black clothes and high silk hat, took the flag-draped platform. He adjusted his spectacles, briefly scanned his two sheets of paper and began to speak.
He had started writing his speech at home in Washington but he was still scribbling away at it when his train rattled into Pennsylvania that morning. Now, he was afraid his speech would be an anti-climax after the long oratory of Everett.
He began, his high, twangy voice reaching out to the crowd, his eyes sometimes leaving his paper to make contact with his audience. But the attention of his audience wandered. Few absorbed what he said and when he finished - only two and a half minutes later - there was only a smattering of applause. Lincoln was distressed. "I ought to have prepared it with more care," he said later.
When he returned to the White House, the President felt ill and feverish. He had been tired now for a long time - a very long time. His friends had advised him to get some rest but his response had been: "The part that is tired is inside, out of reach." Now his doctor diagnosed a mild case of small pox and sent him to bed. In that bed the next morning, he read the newspaper accounts of his speech. Most said it was unremarkable, even trivial.
It would be a while before the speech at Gettysburg would be recognized as the masterpiece it is - one of the simplest, most beautiful summaries of the higher purpose of the war and of America itself. The last lines of the Gettysburg Address are familiar to almost every person in America:
"...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, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
The speaker had predicted that his words that day would be "little noted, nor long remembered." He was wrong. The people of the United States have never forgotten the words spoken that November in Gettysburg, as war raged on between the north and south. And they have never forgotten the man who spoke them and saved the union from division - President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is probably the most admired and best loved of all American presidents, and among the greatest, if not the greatest leader, the country has ever known. He guided the United States through the most devastating experience in its history; he emancipated the slaves; he defined his country's goals more eloquently than anyone since the Founding Fathers; he preserved the Union; and perhaps most importantly - he proved to the world that democracy can be a strong and lasting form of government.
Besides all his achievements in government, Abraham Lincoln himself became a living symbol of the American dream that anyone, no matter how humble their origins, can rise to their greatest potential and attain their highest aspirations.
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