One-hundred-fifty years ago, April 1861 through May 1865, marked as one of the darkest times of our country: The American Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, 19-November 1863, stands as one of the most well known speeches in American history. Delivered six months after the actual battle, Lincoln managed to galvanize a divided nation toward a “new birth of freedom” and the prospect of true equality.
The speech, given at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA was delivered by a haggard, mournful and nearly weak president. Reaction to the two minute speech seemed to fall short for many, given the depth of the occasion. Lincoln was subsequently chastised and praised for the eloquent effort in the days and months that followed. Yet the truly succinct content and delivery of eternal tenants of equality, freedom and perseverance left the attending crowd in a dignified silence. No applause was offered when Lincoln stopped speaking, as the crowd was hushed to silence, and then a delayed and weak applause came after.
Nearly eight thousand dead and thirty-nine thousand wounded, captured or missing had resulted from the battle of July first through third 1863, just six months earlier. And as the November dedication ceremonies were taking place, re-interment of bodies from the battlefield graves into the national cemetery was still underway.
The poem below is my attempt to realize the man, and his thoughts and regrets as he prepared to give this speech, on the battlefield of Gettysburg. He assuredly walked the hallowed ground, and certainly struggled with his emotions regarding his responsibility to his office, to the union, and to these men fallen. It must have been a long walk.
This poem attempts to reflect on what I believed I could have felt if I had been there to see the man at this point of difficult challenge for not only himself, but our young nation.
I’ve seen you there, in sharp relief,
your strength of spirit, iron will
drawn tight into the moment’s point,
silent hope, compassion’s fill,
so contrast the graying battlefield.
I’ve watched you reach for words expressed,
but none could hold your tears in check.
I’ve seen your furrowed brow grow deep,
speechless. Bittersweet this death
that brought the end to souls untold,
now shouting ‘last the fight’s undone,
“These loving arms no more shall hold
the hearts for whom this battle won.”
I’ve felt the pain, impetuous,
draw blooded tears within your soul,
and struggle in one moment’s doubt,
by you, this great and utter toll
one moment’s decision rifted.
For had you seen a sparrow light
before those words, you might have lifted
the pen and lost the thought
that led these young souls here…
Yet granted by the will of God,
your words, a nation sanctified,
that now at bloodied battlefield,
two parts, in union, these lives have tied.
I’ve seen that in your knowledge thus,
no ration found or reason made,
could ease the pain in burden, standing
upon the horrored battle glade.
In dignity you moved between
the fallen throng of man and horse,
your tears in gentle wiping,
your speech suppressed to whisper, hoarse.
I’ve seen your great reflection now,
compassion wrapped humility,
through generations time has wrought
and birthed our freedom, our liberty.
Yet if today your soul still wanes
in what was cast and needed done,
please find enhearten’d confidence,
that greater still the battles run…
for way of life and human rights,
for purposed divined in liberty,
your strength of spirit and compassion real,
has inspired right, has kept us free.
For we are one above the rest
who reach for truth and justice.
Our commitment to the path you took,
thus your soul displayed, before us.
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