Thursday, November 19, 2009

"146 Years Ago Today"

On this day, 146 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a 272-word address at the dedication of The Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The President arrived at the burial ground on horseback (a chestnut bay) as part of a procession that included members his cabinet, dignitaries, townspeople and war widows. It was a long day for the President. He joined the procession at 9:30 A.M. and made his "dedicatory remarks" in the afternoon, during a ceremony that featured, among other things, prayers, musical offerings and a two-hour oration by former Secretary of State Edward Everett.

One segment of Ken Burns' 11-hour The Civil War documentary (1990) continues to haunt me after all these years. Episode 5 (there are nine altogether) ends with Sam Waterston reciting the Gettysburg Address, with the Ashokan Farewell playing in the background. Waterston's recitation is a voiceover -- on screen we see actual photos from the Civil War battlefield. I was moved to tears hearing the profound beauty of Lincoln's words, as the period photos flashed across the screen.

This Lincoln montage features the musical soundtrack of Burns' The Civil War. The beautiful Ashokan Farewell, composed and performed by Jay Ungar, is a fitting backdrop for a recitation of the Gettysburg Address on this day.

"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."

~Abraham Lincoln