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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was forgotten once, but never again

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was Forgotten once, but never again

by Salena Zito, Washington Examiner

Nov 16, 2018


GETTYSBURG, PA — In the days that followed Abraham Lincoln’s 272-word speech to

thousands of onlookers in this small Pennsylvania farm town, few newspapers in the country

immediately reported on the speech.

When they did, explains historian Michael Kraus, it was mostly dour examination, filled with

misquotes of the 16th president’s words.

“There were a lot of mistakes in those first reports. Words weren't heard well, order was mixed up. The speech didn't appear in every newspaper the next day, or the next day, or the next day,”Kraus said from his artifact-filled basement office at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh, where he serves as the curator.

When it finally did, the reviews were sharply critical.

“A paper in Boston ripped it to shreds; so did other papers across the North,” said Kraus.

Even the local Harrisburg paper, the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, dismissed it as mindless

gibberish. "We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of,” it opined.

In truth, it took decades for anyone to think much of the speech, or even think of it all.

“It wasn’t until well over a quarter-century later that it began to emerge in the American psyche across the country that this speech was more than a speech, it defined who we were for eternity,” said Kraus days before the 155th anniversary of a speech that took less than two minutes to give and nearly a 100 years to reach the reverence it holds today.

It is a lesson in understanding the effects of time. Time doesn’t always erode and bury the past. Sometimes, it helps us better appreciate what was long right in front of us.

“History shows us greatness often isn’t appreciated in the moment,” Kraus said, “as historians we are always discovering new powerful things that have happened that have barely been told or passed along.”

Lincoln’s invitation to Gettysburg was an afterthought by the organizers of the dedication of the first national cemetery in the country. “It was just months after the battle,” Kraus explained. “Honestly, the big draw for people to attend was Edward Everett, sort of the rock star of the era, who was known for his sweeping oratory skills.”

Everett would speak for over two hours that day. Lincoln, who came after him spoke for two

minutes; when he stepped off the stage, he had thought he’d failed.

As a re-enactor, Kraus says he has been to Gettysburg hundreds of times. “You’d think I’d know everything, yet every time I am there, I find out something new, which is why I became a re-enactor, so that I could immerse myself in history and be a better historian.”

What a loss our country and our souls would have suffered had the Gettysburg Address been lost to the criticisms, the subsequent brutal battles that followed what happened here, the shock of the president’s violent death, and the chaos of Reconstruction.

It is a speech that defines us, just as this battlefield defines us: The former reminds us to endure, the latter reminds us to never repeat. 

"— 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."

— Gettysburg Address

In an era where deep political divisions fill our social media feeds, our cable news reports, and nearly every aspect of our culture, it is heartening to make the bend on Baltimore Pike and find hundreds and hundreds of young families crowding into the Gettysburg National Park Military Museum.

Aditi Varma was waiting in the massive lobby of the museum with her two children, son Raghav and daughter Alahaead, while her husband, Mudit, bought the tickets for the family to enjoy the museum and a guided battlefield tour.

“Our son really is interested in American history, he is studying the Civil War, and he really

wanted to come here,” she said. The Varma family, who were all born in India, now live in

Princeton Junction, N.J., and had just made the first half of a six-hour round trip for a day at the national park.

“The battle here and the address is important part of our history, and since it’s hard to imagine it happening today, it is good to experience it in person to help understand it,” 11-year-old Raghav shyly says.

The Renner-Grady-Deal family have deep ties here: Five sets of grandfathers fought in the battle,including Samuel Grady, whose great-great-grandson and namesake Sam, a seven-year-old from Bethesda, Md., was there with his own parents and grandparents and cousins.

The crew of eight — half live in Pennsylvania, the other half in Maryland — were holding maps and trying to figure out where to go next. They had met for a day of walking the battlefields and locating their grandfathers’ names on the memorials of the battles they fought in.

“Sometimes when you are in the moment of something great, especially one that would steer the course of the country, it's hard to understand the bigness of what's really happening,” said Sarah Grady, Sam’s mom.

“It's important for everyone to be here and just to realize our history. And, you know, sitting

through the film and then the cyclorama afterwards, just really understanding or trying to

understand the best we could what it was like to have a nation so divided that we went to war fighting each other. It really puts you in there. As I think as I get older, I get more appreciative of it. And it becomes more resonant with what maybe we are living today, especially today,” said her husband, Chris.

This weekend, the park will mark the 155th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address with a long weekend of parades, a reading of the speech, and a solemn yet breathtaking commemoration at the cemetery, where luminary candles light each of the 3,512 Civil War soldiers' ; graves as their names are read beginning at dusk.

“As our country matured and realized the value of Lincoln’s words heading into the twentieth

century, his brief address is often used to comfort us when all other words fail,” said Kraus,

standing in front the largest hand-painted canvas version of the Gettysburg Address — 78 feet wide.

Just two weeks earlier, the speech had served as a backdrop for a vigil for the 11 people

massacred in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

The Gettysburg Address took years to earn glory, but she has held it well. It’s a reminder that our power to heal always lies within ourselves.

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what

they did here,” said Lincoln in his scratchy high-pitch voice that day here in Gettysburg.

Initially, Lincoln was right about the first part. But the Gilded Age ushered in a patriotism that embraced Lincolnism, ensuring that for families like the Varmas and the Grady clan, and the rest of us, that the beliefs that held Lincoln together as he held his country together won’t ever be forgotten.

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