Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

150 years ago today, Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, defining the American Civil War in one of the most important speeches in history. He was there to deliver “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of a cemetery for the Union dead from the Battle of Gettysburg, the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought in North America.

Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg on November 18, just after dusk had settled upon the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Thousands had flocked to the city, crowding the streets of the small southern Pennsylvania town with outsiders for the second time in 1863. Lincoln spent that evening in the David Wills home on the town square, where 36 people stayed that evening. Lincoln spent that night finishing his remarks for the following day. He was asked to speak to a group of well wishers outside the Wills home, but declined, stating only that he preferred not to speak extemporaneously that evening.

The next morning, Lincoln rose early to tour the Gettysburg battlefield. He wanted to visit where Major General John Reynolds had been killed on July 1, 1863, and thus rode to the Herbst Woods on McPherson Ridge, part of the July 1 battlefield.

Upon returning to the town, Lincoln took part in a procession to the new cemetery. After entering the cemetery from Baltimore Street, Lincoln and other dignitaries made their way to the speaker’s rostrum. Speaking first was Edward Everett, who famously delivered an oration stretching over two hours. Then, it was Lincoln’s turn.

As Lincoln stepped forward, he was speaking amidst a climate of death and destruction. All around the still unfinished cemetery, there were fresh graves, holding the remains of soldiers who had recently given their lives that this nation may live. When Lincoln arrived at the train station the day before, there were coffins stacked nearby, waiting to be used for the remains of brave soldiers who paid the last full measure of devotion. During his tour of the battlefield, he saw graves of soldiers who had not yet been reinterred to the new cemetery, as well as the landscape which still bore the scars of battle. And, when Lincoln stepped forward at the cemetery dedication, around his famed top hat was a black band, signifying that he was still mourning the loss of his son Willie, who died in February 1862. Lincoln was, in many ways, still a grieving father who, although he had not lost a son due to war, was speaking to a nation of grieving parents whose children had perished on farmers fields across the United States in a struggle for the future of the nation. He stepped forward that day to answer a question: was all of the death and suffering that was tearing apart the country ultimately worth it. Lincoln’s answer was yes.


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.

The war would go on. Thousands more would die, including Lincoln himself. And yet, despite these deaths, despite the pain and destruction of the war, the nation and its ideals would continue to live. It continues to live today, a testament to the sacrifices that were made so many years ago. And yet, there is still "the great task remaining before us," a task that has remained and will remain for each generation of Americans, to ensure that the democratic government that Lincoln spoke of 150 years ago today "shall not perish from the earth."