Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Gettysburg Address, 150 Years Later

I must begin this post by admitting a failing of my blogging here at Their Finest Hour. I had fully intended to write a spate of posts this past July for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863 - and they didn't happen, mainly because I was otherwise consumed with "day job" and non-blogging personal life concerns. With this post, I hope to make up for one little bit of what I had originally intended to author.

On November 19, 1863, the national military cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated. President Abraham Lincoln was invited to attend and offer some brief remarks, but he wasn't even the featured speaker. That honor was given to a noted orator of the time, Edward Everett, who spoke for over two hours.

When Everett had finished, it was President Lincoln's turn. His brief remarks took only a few minutes to deliver. They so simply, and so eloquently, recounted the heroism and sacrifices that took place upon those grounds that they are the speech that is today remembered as the Gettysburg Address, and are considered to be perhaps the greatest Presidential speech ever given.

The address follows, as does a story of incredible courage from July 2, 1863 that you probably don't know about - and it's a story of a single action by a commander and the men he ordered that may very well have saved the Union.

There are several written contemporaneous copies of the Gettysburg Address that all differ slightly. The one accepted as the definitive version is called the "Bliss version", written by Lincoln some time after the actual event, and the only copy to which he placed his signature.
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 battlefield 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.
I should think that most of my readers are familiar with one of the acts which so consecrated the Gettysburg battlefield: the charge of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain in the defense of Little Round Top. Chamberlain's charge on the afternoon of July 2, 1863 is well known today thanks to Michael Shaara's historical novel The Killer Angels and the 1993 film made from it, Gettysburg. With no ammunition left, and with no room for retreat, this one Maine regiment fixed their bayonets and attacked - and may well have saved the republic by doing so.

However, there was another charge on July 2, 1863 that hasn't been placed on the movie screen. At about 6:00 PM that day, the Confederate division under the command of Major General Richard H. Anderson threatened the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The Union commander there, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, was desperately short of reinforcements. If the line on Cemetery Ridge faltered, the Confederate forces could sweep into the Union rear and destroy the Army of the Potomac.

Hancock observed a Confederate brigade approaching in the attack with no Union force in front of it. He knew the only way he would be able to hold the then-precarious defensive position on Cemetery Ridge was to trade lives for time.

Those lives belonged to the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Colonel William Colvill.

General Hancock ordered the Minnesotans to advance and seize the attacking enemy colors, even though the Confederate force was perhaps five times larger. They charged with their bayonets fixed, and while suffering enormous casualties, their own colors knocked to the ground several times, they persisted, struggled, advanced, and miraculously blunted the enemy attack and forced their withdrawal.

40 of the Minnesotans gave their lives in the charge. A further 175 were wounded. 215 casualties out of 262 men; 82 percent. No other unit of the United States Army has ever sustained such catastrophic losses in one action.

And we probably have a Gettysburg Address delivered by a President of the United States rather than the Confederate States to thank them for.

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