Seeing the past through fuzzy lens of history
During the week before Memorial Day, radio host Herman Cain read to his audience an excerpt of what he described as the finest Memorial Day speech in American history even though it was given on Nov. 19, at Gettysburg, Penn., in 1863, four months after the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil.
Herman read, “... we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was, indeed, a masterpiece of insight, eloquence and brevity. But there is more for those willing to look below the surface.
The event was the dedication of a 17-acre national cemetery, established for the purpose of re-burying dead from the July Battle of Gettysburg. The aftermath of the battle had been a nightmare for the small Pennsylvania town. Nearly 9,000 bodies lay over a wide area, many torn apart, all bloating and decomposing in the sun, never mind the hundreds of dead horses, flies by the trillions and overpowering stench.
While the locals struggled with persistent disgusting odors and worry about disease, burial squads worked relentlessly to get bodies temporarily under the dirt and politicians hatched the idea to seek a federal solution, with the resulting Gettysburg National Cemetery. Now it was November, time to cut the ribbon and get on with the re-burial process.
Organizers of the dedication event wanted a powerful speaker, but they swiftly overlooked President Lincoln since he was so unpopular. They chose Edward Everett of Massachusetts, a statesman with a long resume, flowing white mane and booming voice well-practiced in oratory.
President Lincoln was grudgingly invited as an afterthought to add his “remarks” after the main speaker, but the invitation was given with expectations and hope he would be too busy to attend. Lincoln, however, badly wanted to attend to boost political support in Pennsylvania.
On the day of the dedication the swelling crowd of 15-20,000, reminded of the cemetery’s purpose by lingering odors, would have to listen well since they were so many and there was no microphone.
With scant entertainment in those days, the crowd gathered not to see the President, but to pass the time listening to a long speech by headliner Edward Everett.
He did not disappoint, heaping his flowery prose and blistering vilification of the Confederacy on the crowd for two hours.
When he was finished, President Lincoln rose, removed his stovepipe hat and the crowd grew very silent as he spoke just 271 words lasting all of two minutes.
Lincoln finished with, “... 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.”
The crowd remained silent, perhaps not quite ready for such a short delivery, perhaps lost in thought over the insights they had just heard.
Lincoln said to an associate, ”That speech won’t scour ...“ thinking it a failure in the view of the crowd and referring to a bad plow that won’t properly turn the earth.
But of course he was wrong. Everett was the intended orator of the day, but those of us who dutifully memorized Lincoln’s words in school know otherwise.
Fast-forward to today. Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg are familiar to any competent student, and that cemetery is a national attraction to pay homage to the incredible courage and enormous loss at the Battle of Gettysburg. But something important was missing.
Maybe Herman Cain has the same question so many visitors ask when they visit Gettysburg National Cemetery, “Where are the Confederate graves?” Park rangers answer with what I would call a sugar-coated half-truth, “They were relocated back to Confederate states.”
Well, that is more like a cover story. The truth is the cemetery, the dedication, and our president’s eloquent words, were for the Union dead, and by design excluded the Confederate dead from all such honors.
Like many Americans, for a long time I assumed the solemn occasion and Lincoln’s insightful words were for the 8,900 dead from the battle fought four months prior.
But the Confederate dead were not only excluded from honors on the day Lincoln spoke, their bodies had been hastily buried in shallow graves along the roadsides, shoved into trenches and mass graves, some left to rot in the fields.
Lincoln’s famous speech marked a state and national effort to prepare a resting place of honor for the Union dead while Confederate bodies were left unattended, their graves unmarked, with no intention to do otherwise.
In the words of one newspaper reporter, “The poor Confederate dead were left in the fields as outcasts and criminals that did not merit decent sepulture.” I had to look up that word; it means burial or internment, a final resting place prepared with respect. In simple terms, the Confederate dead didn’t count.
I can understand the good people of Pennsylvania dismissing Confederates as foreign invaders deserving no sympathy from locals. Such is war.
But I did expect more than disrespect from a deep-thinking president who had passionately argued that Southerners were inescapably Americans, part of the Union with no right to secede, no right to be left alone.
I wonder how he squared that with ignoring thousands of Confederate war dead nearby while honoring Union dead from the same battlefield with his speech. Calling that a stretch would be more than kind.
The park rangers are right that most Confederate dead were removed to Southern states, but not by any effort of the Gettysburg organizers, or the state of Pennsylvania or the feds in Washington, D.C.
In 1872, nine years after the battle and seven years after the end of the war, 15 wagons were arranged at Rockett’s Landing on the James River in Richmond, Va. A steamship was delivering the remains of Confederate dead from the Gettysburg battlefield, a result of a Richmond group having raised funds to relocate these Confederate sons to a place of honor in the vast Hollywood Cemetery, so named for holly trees.
The procession was somber, buildings draped in black, wagons draped in mourning and each wagon escorted by two former Confederate soldiers with muskets carried in reverse as they marched.
The procession included politicians and other leaders, the funeral march echoing off the buildings of Main Street as they made their way to the cemetery with citizens gathered in lines on either side, watching in silence with glassy eyes as what was left of their sons and brothers and husbands finally came home.
There was no presidential speech this time, just a simple prayer as the remains of these young men were laid to rest in a place of honor and respect.
In all, 3,320 Confederate remains were removed from the Gettysburg battlefield, the vast majority interred in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, lesser numbers returned to Raleigh, N.C., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. There may have been others moved.
We like our history, and our heroes, to be one-dimensional, black and white, simple and clear. The truth, on the other hand, is frequently complicated, a little dirty at the edges even though we like to think in pristine terms.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the disrespect of that event to Confederate war dead, would be a wonderful civics lesson that the truth is rarely the pretty, short, surface version we hear in school, that we need to be cynical enough to dig for reality.
If I have an opportunity to visit Gettysburg to pay respects to the Union dead buried there, I should ask the park rangers about the Confederate dead and not let them get away with sugar-coating.
I should also remind myself to visit Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery where more than 18,000 Confederate war dead are buried.
Both deserve our respect.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City occasionally contributes a column to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]