On this date in 1863, President Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to deliver what would become known as the “Gettysburg Address.” Although some revere Lincoln while others despise him, I think this short speech is one of the greatest American achievements. In honor of this event, here is an excerpt from my upcoming novel, A Rebel Among Us, when the main character sees Lincoln face to face.
The family arrived to find throngs of people clogging the road into Gettysburg. David drove slowly toward the center of town, past two- and three-story brick, stone, and weatherboard houses. Abolitionists lined the street, holding signs degrading the South and singing “John Brown’s Body.” Students from Pennsylvania College gathered near street corners in clusters. Union soldiers were everywhere. A group of them walked over and surrounded the landau. David’s heart raced wildly. All of his battlefield memories rushed over him. He continuously drew deep breaths in order to contain his composure and repeatedly wiped his sweaty palms against the coat Anna had provided him.
She glanced at him and noticed his wary expression. “Are you all right?” she asked.
All he could do was nod in response. He was terrified, but he couldn’t let his fears be known to the family.
Pulling Alphie to a halt, he climbed down, tied him to a post, assisted the ladies from the carriage, and escorted them toward a wooden platform that had been erected for the occasion. Someone handed him a program, so he smiled politely, being careful not to speak. The Stars and Stripes waved from atop a flagpole overlooking the gathering, its stars now totaling thirty-five, which included all of the states of the Confederacy. Behind him, he saw rows of graves, their white markers protruding from the dead earth, gleaming in the bright sunshine. Remnants of the fierce battle still remained. Scarred trees, pieces of wagons, rifle pits, scraps of clothing, broken fences, canteens, and other personal artifacts cluttered the sacred ground. Adjacent to the new Soldiers Cemetery was the old town graveyard. Ironically, a sign had been posted there before the great battle: All persons found using firearms on these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law.
The Yankee dignitaries, lined in procession, finally appeared. Parading through the center of the enormous crowd, they made their way to the platform, which had a sofa and several chairs positioned on it. Four military bands began to play “Hail Columbia.” Union soldiers filed in. They stood only a few feet from David as the procession came through.
“There’s the president!” a man behind him said.
“He’s quite a Chesterfield,” remarked another.
David turned to see Mr. Lincoln atop a gray horse, riding toward the platform. Either the horse was too small or the president was too tall. His legs nearly touched the ground.
The soldiers saluted, and the president returned the gesture. David almost did, too, but caught himself in time. He gazed at the tall, slender, dark-bearded man who wore a long black suitcoat and stovepipe hat. President Lincoln’s expression was somber. His large eyes glanced over the crowd, and a faint, sad smile crossed his lips. Awestruck, David took in the sight of the man he’d heard so much about. The president’s weathered face, both homely and attractive at once, showed sensitivity and remorse. David felt overwhelmed to be in his presence. He continued to stare while the president rode past him. Mr. Lincoln turned his head and looked directly at him, apparently sensing his gaze. Their eyes met. David’s heart leaped into his throat. The president dismounted and stepped up onto the platform. His kind, gentle expression showed compassion. David wondered how he could intentionally proceed with the war, set the slaves free, and pass laws to cripple the South.
Just before noon, the program commenced with the Birgfield’s Band of Philadelphia playing “Homage d’un Heros.” Called to prayer, the audience was reminded of how so many young men had departed from their loved ones to die for their cause. The Reverend T.H. Stockton spoke with such soulful entreaty his listeners were overcome with emotion. When he was finished, the United States Marine Band played “Old Hundred.”
David glanced around; relieved no one could detect his secret. His eyes met Maggie’s. She mouthed the word “Rebel” at him, and glared so harshly he felt compelled to look away.
Edward Everett of Massachusetts began with an oration. He went on endlessly in an eloquent speech, referring to Athens, the occasion for which they all assembled, the significant victory, and the history of the war. Giving an elaborate account of the battle, he said nothing about the cavalry fight and predictably proceeded to castigate the South. In his opinion, the Confederacy had committed treason, comparable to the Bible’s “Infernal Serpent” by perpetuating wrong and injustice. He referred to the Rebels as Eversores Imperiorum, or destroyers of States.
David continuously scanned the crowd, half-expecting the soldiers to surround him at any moment. He noticed how some of the spectators yawned and wandered off to observe unfinished gravesites. After nearly two hours, Mr. Everett’s harangue finally ended. The Musical Association of Baltimore, accompanied by a band, sang “Consecration Hymn,” but the lyrics were so traumatic many people began to sob.
“Here, where they fell, oft shall the widow’s tear be shed.
Oft shall fond parents mourn their dead; the orphan here shall kneel and weep.”
David felt his throat tighten. He stared down at his boots, waited for the hymn to end, and remembered his comrades, his best friend, and his father.
At last, the President of the United States was introduced. The crowd applauded. Mr. Lincoln made his way to the front of the platform. Keeping his eyes downcast, he withdrew his steel-rimmed spectacles from a vest pocket. His visage remained staid and melancholy. Slowly, clearly, deliberately, he began to speak. David hung on every word. In spite of how he felt about the man, his heart began to swell.
“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.”
David thought it ironic the Northern President spoke with a hint of a Southern drawl, but then recalled Mr. Lincoln had been born in Kentucky. The president returned to his seat. A sprinkling of applause followed him. David thought he heard the President say, “Well, that fell on them like a wet blanket,” but he wasn’t close enough to be sure. Everyone around seemed surprised the president’s speech was so short, but David found himself overcome by the Yankee president’s words. Although they didn’t necessarily apply to his Southern beliefs, they were heartfelt and poignant.
A dirge was sung, a benediction given, and the soldiers completed the program with a cannon salute, which startled him and jolted his heart for a moment. The spectators filed out of the square. He glanced over at Maggie. The time was ripe for her to confess his true identity, but she merely stared at him with a smirk on her face.