'Shall not perish from the earth'
By the time President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg to dedicate the Union cemetery there, 150 years ago today, the Civil War had become a long, inevitable slog.
Four months earlier, on July 3, the bloody victory at Gettysburg put Robert E. Lee permanently on the defensive in a war of attrition that only the Union could win. And, the same day, the surrender of Vicksburg, Miss. gave the Union control of the entire Mississippi River and a commander - Ulysses S. Grant - who ruthlessly would prosecute the war to a complete victory.
In his address at Gettysburg, Lincoln sealed his greatness not simply by recounting the obvious valor of the men who had died there, but by emphasizing the purpose of their sacrifice. He tied the great struggle to the nation's founding principles, including the Declaration's unfulfilled assertion that "all men are created equal," and to the responsibility to fulfill that vision.
Their sacrifice was not to win a particular battle, but the battle: "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."
Recently, the Patriot-News of Harrisburg apologized for an editorial 150 years ago that panned Mr. Lincoln's address. But the speech widely was panned at the time, at least partially because most people were totally consumed by the immediacy of the cataclysmic Civil War.
It took the person in the eye of that storm, Lincoln, to tie it to the nation's past and future, to declare that it all would be worth it. The Gettysburg Address has defied Lincoln's prediction that it would not be remembered because he made sure that it was more than rhetoric.