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!”
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.