One November Day 157 Years Ago

On a November day 157 years ago:

The little Pennsylvania hamlet is thumping like a bass drum. Out-of-town visitors are everywhere. They wear their Sunday best—stovepipe hats, frilly dresses, and buckled boots.

Rumor has it that the President just arrived by train. As in: the actual President. This truly is quite a day.

Roughly 15,000 spectators are gathering in a field around a small platform stage, which is now filled with important men in black suits. This land is being christened as a cemetery today.

But don’t look around this pasture too intently, it will chill your blood. And, for heaven’s sake, plug your nose. Rotting human corpses still litter this field by the scores. The stench is overpowering, and the visuals are even worse.

Only three months ago the Battle of Gettysburg happened upon this dirt. A conflict that resulted in 51,000 casualties. After the fight, some 8,000 human bodies were left unburied here, baking in the sun.

Locals have been dealing with carcasses for months now. At night the bonfires can be seen all over the county.

As far as the nation’s political climate goes: America hates each other. In ways you cannot fathom.

People who once shared pews on Sundays are ramming bayonets into each other. Biological brothers are killing one another. Next-door neighbors are standing toe-to-toe on battlegrounds. About 750,000 will die before this war officially ends.

The keynote speaker today is Edward Everett. He is a ball of fire. He has a shock of white hair and a face that looks like he’s dealing with moderate to severe constipation. Organizers planned this whole shindig around his busy speaking schedule because he’s famous.

The President is also attending. He might say a few words.

The ceremony is madness. Crowds are milling in clumps. The fetid battlefield is nothing but cannonball divots and stink flies. This is an eerie place to be. Human remains are scattered everywhere. One dignified woman trips over an adult femur and is so disturbed she almost passes out.

Everett takes the podium.

The crowd hushes.

He sounds like a camp meeting preacher, loud, passionate, fiery. He waves his hands, pointing to various hillsides, describing the battle in each bloodred detail.

The people eat this up. After a few sentences the crowd is whipped into a patriotic frenzy by the orator. Some holler “Amen!” Or “Tell it, brother!”

Soon, Everett’s collar is coming apart, he’s dripping sweat, speaking in the fevered tongues of an evangelist. He is helping this crowd renew their hatred for the enemy.

Two hours later, when he finally stops talking, people are ready to go kick some proverbial butt. They are fired up. Gritting teeth. Clenching fists.

Next, the Baltimore Glee Club takes the stage to sing a hymn.

And now it’s the other guy’s turn to talk.

The emcee shouts, “Ladies and gentlemen! The President of the United States!”

Applause.

A tall, slight man with heron legs moves centerstage. His cheeks have deep worry-grooves, his lined forehead is topped with a nest of messy hair that almost makes him look nuts.

This man is nothing like the first speaker. He does not wear the stern face of a preacher. He does not possess the iciness of generals. This is a former hillbilly.

The “New York Herald” called him a “fourth-rate lecturer who could not speak good grammar.” Another newspaper called him a “slang-whanging stump speaker.” Whatever that means.

He is a man who suffers from chronic depression. A man whose friends, not long ago, were worried he would attempt suicide. Sadness clings to this president like a wet quilt. The burden of his job is immeasurable.

He digs into his pocket for his glasses. Then, the six-foot-four Illinois Rail Splitter unfolds a small piece of paper. He clears his throat.

No matter what critics say about him, he is a lover of the English language. Wholly self educated. Members of his cabinet never see him without a book in his pocket. He adores the poetry of Burns and Shakespeare. One of his favorite novels is “Robinson Crusoe.” He’s a sucker for love stories.

He glances across the field, riddled with cadavers. He can almost visualize the ghosts of 18-year-olds, dressed in opposing colors, stabbing each other, discharging rifles. His bottom lip threatens to tremble. His eyes become slick. When will the fighting stop? When, God, when?

He begins his 271-word speech and speaks slowly. There is a little Kentucky in his voice.

“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…”

The crowd’s mood changes. No more shouting or fist pumping. This is not a man celebrating war victories.

“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…”

Mid-speech he looks into the audience and sees a little girl seated on her father’s shoulders. She holds a miniature American flag. Behind her is a legless veteran, still in uniform.

“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.”

He is no longer looking at his notes. The President is visibly moved. He folds the paper, removes his specs, and recites the rest from memory.

“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.”

He spoke for few minutes. Then he sat back down.

Yes. It really was quite a day.

48 comments

  1. Deborah L Blount - November 10, 2020 7:46 am

    Amen. One of the most moving speeches a sitting president ever made. I remember as a child memorizing the Gettysburg Address and being moved by it. It still moves me today.

    Reply
  2. oldlibrariansshelf - November 10, 2020 7:48 am

    Thank you, Sean, for taking us back to another divided time–reminding us that even with our conflicted beliefs we share the love of our country in common.

    Reply
  3. Julie Patterson - November 10, 2020 9:50 am

    Thank you for reminding us that we are all created equal and that we can and must heal the deep wounds that exist in our country.

    Reply
  4. Ann - November 10, 2020 10:08 am

    This is sooo appropriate for today
    Unfortunately the media would alter and destroy it, but if we could somehow 🙏🏻 Have five minutes of silence nationwide and have the correct booming voice deliver this magnificent speech..then have five more minutes of silence🙏🏻….our minds may mellow a bit. It’s not going to happen and the more things change the more they don’t so I prayerfully wish this could at least make the front page and lead in of every news outlet nationwide
    ❤️🇺🇸❤️🇺🇸❤️🇺🇸❤️🇺🇸

    Reply
  5. Cynthia Harmon - November 10, 2020 10:09 am

    Thank you, Sean. You chose well today. We needed this reminder of what binds us together.

    Reply
  6. Te Burt - November 10, 2020 10:28 am

    We all celebrate this speech as an icon in our history. Your words brought this scene alive for me as nothing else has. Looks like we may be there again.

    Reply
  7. George Perry - November 10, 2020 11:17 am

    I remember playing Abe Lincoln in our school’s fifth-grade play and having to memorize this speech. I couldn’t help but notice the disparity between the ideals express in this speech and the reality of life in Brewton, Alabama in the 1950s. Fortunately, a few years later, I heard Dr. King speak at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, and was inspired to support civil rights for the rest of my life.

    Reply
  8. Barbara - November 10, 2020 11:31 am

    Thank you Sean for reminding us that our country has gone through rough times before, and been able to move forward to a better day. 🙏💕

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  9. Lynn Williamson - November 10, 2020 11:35 am

    How many Confederate soldiers were laid to rest in that national cemetary ?? Great “unionification” effort. There are and will always be “differences” in origin, experiences and thought between people. Stop trying to make us all the same.

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  10. Babs. - November 10, 2020 12:06 pm

    Amen

    Reply
  11. Jenny Brannan - November 10, 2020 12:32 pm

    One of the very best. A reminder we needed.

    Reply
  12. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - November 10, 2020 12:34 pm

    Amen!

    Reply
  13. Xan - November 10, 2020 12:46 pm

    Your words are best when they come straight from your heart and not your mind. You painted a vivid portrait of our country. This should be read in our civics and history classes in schools across our country. Thank you Sean.

    Reply
  14. MJ l - November 10, 2020 12:46 pm

    Thank you. I never take for granted that I am a Lincoln. I proud and thankful to be an American and I pray ceaselessly for our country.

    Reply
  15. Sheri Smith - November 10, 2020 12:46 pm

    Thank you for this. I remember having to memorize this in 8th grade. It means so much more to me now than it did back then. I thank God I had a great history teacher who really taught history.

    Reply
  16. Catherine A. Kiser - November 10, 2020 12:51 pm

    Well said Sean. Thank you for taking us to that moment in history so vividly, may we never forget.

    Reply
  17. Lynn - November 10, 2020 1:23 pm

    We are not each other’s enemy. Each of us (which ever side of the aisle, red or blue state, etc) has been created in His image and have been given a great calling. The enemy is the one who comes to divide us and to steal our soul. Thank you for your blogs. War Eagle! (Proud Auburn alum mom from Missouri)

    Reply
  18. Toni Adcock - November 10, 2020 1:27 pm

    Oh my…the president might speak a few words – well said Sean. Thank you for bringing that day into focus today…it somehow fits where we’re standing right now.

    Reply
  19. Lancaster Tony - November 10, 2020 1:30 pm

    After the tears while reading “One November Morning”, I thought it would be fitting to balance those emotions with with some Gary Larson “Far Side” humor referencing one of your columns, “Fruit Cakes”. Both you columns were very well written and touched not my tear ducts and my funny bone. May God bless you Sean.💕
    https://pics.me.me/unbeknownst-to-most-theologians-there-was-a-fourth-wiseman-who-9831674.png

    Reply
  20. Melinda Ratchford - November 10, 2020 1:34 pm

    Thanks Sean for reminding us that divisiveness comes quickly and lasts longer than the time it was conceived. Lest we forget – our Civil War was anything but civil and 150+ years later we are still trying to absorb the lessons of that war. War is an anachronism kept alive by people who would rather send others to fight than find solutions to our common problems. We are a world of slow learners.

    Reply
  21. Ms MickeydeLaup - November 10, 2020 1:41 pm

    Thank you but really you make me cry every day 🙂

    Reply
  22. Betty Hawley - November 10, 2020 1:52 pm

    I memorized this in high school, I’m 75 years old, and recite it most nights when I fall asleep. The portion your “…” left out is important. Since you noted the speech is only 271 words, perhaps all should have been included. “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.” The first speaker’s 2 hour speech is little noted nor remembered as Lincoln said, but Lincoln’s speech is still remembered.

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  23. Kathy - November 10, 2020 2:00 pm

    How timely. Thank you.

    Reply
  24. Jan - November 10, 2020 2:00 pm

    Amen! What a wonderful reminder that this is not a new path. We have been this way before. We are brothers and sisters, parents and children – all from the same family. We must put down our differences and work together for the common good. Please Lord, let it be so …

    Reply
  25. Pete Black - November 10, 2020 2:05 pm

    Hi Sean – loved that story!! I really enjoy it when you write about historical events.

    Reply
  26. Donna - November 10, 2020 2:26 pm

    Thank you for this today.

    Reply
  27. Penn Wells - November 10, 2020 2:33 pm

    Just now reading “Lincoln On the Verge” – amazing story about his journey from Springfield to Washington for his 1st inauguration. I used to travel to DC on business. It wasn’t unusual for me to take a cab to the Lincoln Memorial late at night to read those words and commune with the great man. But I never knew the scene that stretched before him when he gave The Address. Until now. Thank you.

    Reply
  28. Richard - November 10, 2020 2:38 pm

    Only Lincoln’s second inaugural address surpasses this eloquently moving speech. Imagine what our nation would be today, had not John Wilkes Booth succeeded.

    Reply
  29. Lindsay Warren - November 10, 2020 2:41 pm

    Beautifully written! 🇺🇸

    Reply
  30. Kathryn Kimbrough - November 10, 2020 2:42 pm

    Beautifully stated.

    Reply
  31. Fleming Straughan - November 10, 2020 3:16 pm

    Thank your reminding us
    no matter who won the election
    let’s work out our differences together
    god Bless

    Reply
  32. Chasity Davis Ritter - November 10, 2020 4:12 pm

    I don’t know what’s gonna be happening to OUR country in the next few months. People tease of fbook about what to wear to the civil war. Sometimes we gotta laugh but it really is a serious and dangerous and scary matter. I pray with everything in me that our country could come together. I’m so tired of it being constantly divided. At this moment as I write this I’m sitting in the parking lot of the VA hospital in OKC. It’s a CONSTANT stream of cars arriving bringing people to their appointments. The parking lot is packed out and it’s only 9:30am. It’s gonna be a long long long day for the workers here. All these veterans who gave their time in service to OUR country. To protect and fight for OUR freedoms. Freedoms to argue with people on fbook or vote for who we want in office to have our own religious beliefs. For OUR country. It’s so humbling and this is just one hospital in one town. How many others across the USA are full today? And how many cold graves in lonely cemeteries sit there today because a soldier paid the ultimate sacrifice for you and me????? Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Let’s turn away from politics today. Let’s think of those still serving. Let’s think of those who never came back. Those whose bodies have come home but not their minds and souls. BE KIND!! In their honor and memory!! I’m sitting beneath a row of flags blowing in the breeze above me with so many tears flowing I can barely see my phone screen. I love my country. I don’t want a new civil war. I love my family and friends and neighbors. I’m praying. God bless OUR USA. God bless the veterans from my family and yours. I’m sorry if I got carried away or even maybe missed the point of Sean’s blog or nailed it on the head. It moved me and being where I am and reading it isn’t his parking lot it got to me as much as any of his blogs do.

    Reply
  33. Linda Moon - November 10, 2020 4:37 pm

    That actual President. That one. I finally completed reading all three volumes of Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln recently….the one assigned to me in grade school that I didn’t read then. Thank you for these few words today, Writer.

    Reply
  34. Ann Mills - November 10, 2020 4:41 pm

    Your best yet.

    Reply
  35. Christopher Spencer - November 10, 2020 5:18 pm

    His words are just as relevant today as they were 157 years ago, especially the last paragraph of his brief but immortal speech.

    Thanks once again Sean for bringing to us a history lesson we need to never forget.
    Chris

    Reply
  36. Allison C Gilmore - November 10, 2020 5:59 pm

    Until I read this post today, I had never really visualized the physical setting for this speech.   I had never thought of what it must have been like to see and smell the reminders of death all around while actually hearing those words spoken by the president. A mere 271 words delivered in that grim setting — words that we simply must ensure are remembered for generations to come.

    Reply
  37. Dianne Deavours Shafer - November 10, 2020 8:29 pm

    I have enjoyed so much your blogs, finding your phrasing, similes, and metaphors both humorous and on point. But today’s blog brought tears to my eyes. We Americans are so spoiled that we too often forget what is most important, but your sharing of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the vivid description of the surrounding dead said simply and profoundly where our focus needs to be. Thank you for reminding us of the important thing.

    Reply
  38. Alan Fred Cagle - November 10, 2020 8:42 pm

    After the President finished his ‘few words’, Edward Everette shook his hand and pronounced his speech far better than his own.

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  39. Susan - November 10, 2020 8:53 pm

    I am almost four score and four years old but I still remember most of The Gettysburg Address from having to memorize it in grammar school. Years later as a teacher I had my students memorize it too. I hope they remember it today and appreciate its significance. I was privileged to visit that site in 1966. Sad that my grandchildren didn’t have that emphasis on that great speech by a great president.

    Reply
  40. Dellison - November 10, 2020 9:45 pm

    It is truly hallowed ground. I have had the privilege of visiting twice, and wish I had more time. It is a truly moving experience. I remember in school having to memorize that speech. After walking the fields at Gettysburg, I understood the full impact of the horrible sacrifices. I recently found G G Grandfathers who were there, with the Alabama regiment. So much suffering, and it aged and weighed this President down. We must never forget…..

    Reply
  41. Donna - November 10, 2020 9:49 pm

    A+, Purple Rosette Ribbons, Gold Medals, Silver Magnum Cup Trophies PRAISES & Heartfelt Thanks upon you Sean for this excellent timely piece.

    Reply
  42. Nancy M - November 11, 2020 6:26 am

    This was heart-stirring, and very appropriate for Veterans Day! I memorized it in school, as so many others did, and again when I coached my son as he memorized it, too. A great man and President! Thank you.

    Reply
  43. DiAn - November 11, 2020 6:29 am

    THANK YOU, Sean. For once again, putting all of our political madness in proportion. For rooting us and grounding us in the grim reality of what we really have to be grateful for – and what we Need to be focused on.
    Please keep on writing – we still have a long way to go on the road to equality.
    Your column is one of the high points of my day.
    HERE’S MY MANTRA: Let’s continue to take just One step at a time and we Will make it.
    We will heal and get through this Pandemic.
    We will learn how to grow without spoiling all of our natural resources in the process. We will. Just now we’re taking baby steps and learning with each baby step.
    THANKS, Sean!

    Reply
  44. Kim E - November 11, 2020 7:06 pm

    Sometimes you don’t know you need the reminder, until it’s there.

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  45. David Doom - November 12, 2020 12:24 am

    Amen!, and it is still a message we need to hear today.

    Reply
  46. Gerald Magee - November 12, 2020 2:55 am

    Best speech ever written in the English language. Best president ever

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  47. Allen PhDude - November 12, 2020 3:44 am

    This was pitch perfect, and at just the right time. You are a man of peace, my friend.

    PhDude

    Reply
  48. Margaret Jackson - November 12, 2020 12:59 pm

    Thank you, Sean for this timely message.

    Abraham Lincoln can be described in one word – humility. The word picture you drew here exemplifies that so well.

    He wanted to become president to lead the country in a turbulent time.

    Instead, he got thrust into leading a broken country through a major war.

    His goal was to bring the country back together and I believe he would have been a strong enough leader to do that.

    Often, I have wondered how things would have played out if he had not been assassinated.
    Could our country have avoided some of the turmoil of Reconstruction?
    Could the civil rights protests of the 50’s and 60’s been avoided?

    A person can dream.

    Reply

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