The Battle Over Gettysburg

By Michael Vorenberg / January / February 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, my friend Carlton Bartels left his home on Staten Island for the World Trade Center. He was going to work, not to battle. He was dead before noon.

Unlike Carlton, the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg in July 1863 knew death might lie ahead. More than 7,000 perished in the battle. Four months later, President Abraham Lincoln honored the dead with the Gettysburg Address, delivered at a newly built grave site on the battlefield. (The cemetery, and by implication the address, was for Union dead only; most Confederates were buried elsewhere.)

On the first anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, the Gettysburg Address was read again, this time by New York governor George Pataki. Most people agreed with the choice, but some dissenters argued that a wartime speech had no place at a commemoration of innocent victims of terrorism. Others argued for silence only, doubting whether any words could do justice to the event. Still others contended that such a distinctly American address poorly served the many foreigners among the dead.

Because I teach and write about Lincoln and the Civil War, this fall I found myself fielding questions about the appropriateness of this use of the Gettysburg Address. It was impossible for me to answer strictly as a historian. My thoughts turned first not to the distant past but to Carlton, a peace-loving soul who believed that no war was inevitable or justified. We never discussed the Gettysburg Address and its moving plea 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.” I do remember, however, a conversation in which Carlton contended that the Civil War was the result of a poorly managed conflict between rich men in the North and rich men in the South. (It was a natural argument for Carlton, an emissions trader who believed that the interests of the rich could be harnessed and managed for the good of all people and the environment.) I am fairly certain he would have disapproved of the decision to read the address. He would have seen it as a callous move by politicians to stir up support for war.

I would have seen the wisdom of Carlton’s view, but I still might have defended the planners’ decision. To some extent, they were simply following tradition. Various civic leaders read the address on the first anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for example, and President Lyndon B. Johnson read it on February 12 (Lincoln’s birthday) in 1968. On these occasions, as on September 11, 2002, politicians used the address not only to commemorate a past event but to promote a current cause: World War II, the War on Poverty, the Vietnam War. Like it or not, the address is part of our political culture, and we cannot keep politicians from using it for political purposes. Nor can anyone claim the exclusive moral authority to declare the address appropriate for some occasions but not others.

Also, in our current culture, which encourages all Americans to feel themselves victims of one injustice or another, it might not be enough to characterize the dead of September 11 simply as victims. The popularity of the late Todd Beamer, a hero of Flight 93, suggests the desire among many Americans to focus on the heroism, not the victimhood, of the dead. It is natural to want to mold a positive memory from catastrophe. The poet Emily Dickinson understood that urge when she wrote, “There is a pain so utter / It swallows Being up, / Then covers the abyss with trance / So memory can step / Around, across, upon it.” Enshrining the World Trade Center dead as heroes requires no sleight of hand. After all, many of them were firefighters and police officers who marched willingly into harm’s way, much like the soldiers at Gettysburg. If we are to make heroes from victims, let us do so with a speech like Lincoln’s, which invokes the higher ideal of democracy, rather than a purely pro-war speech, like the one President Bush delivered in Cincinnati one month after the World Trade Center ceremony, which appealed to the memory of September 11 by urging Americans “to confront every threat, from any source.”

Yet, while I support the decision to read one of Lincoln’s speeches at the September 11 commemoration, I wish that a different speech, the Second Inaugural of 1865, had been read. “The Gettysburg Address,” concedes Garry Wills, its foremost analyst, “fails to express the whole of Lincoln’s mind. It must be supplemented with his other most significant address, the Second Inaugural, where sin is added to the picture.” In Lincoln’s time the sin was slavery; the price of that sin was the Civil War. In our time the sin is bigotry; the price of that sin is fear and terrorism. The September 11 commemoration could have used more of the humility of the Second Inaugural, which, like a Puritan jeremiad, points to our shortcomings as well as our glories. Imagine the profound effect these words might have had at the ceremony: “The prayers of both [sides] could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” Lincoln seemed to question the dictum that “right makes might,” which he had proclaimed only five years earlier and which his Gettysburg Address echoed. On September 11, 2002, Americans were ready to hear again Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, his exaltation of the righteousness of American democracy. But we might have benefited more from the Second Inaugural’s plea for “malice toward none; with charity for all,” and its call “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

I am not so naive as to think that the Second Inaugural would have played well in Manhattan this fall. Lincoln’s appeal for humility and empathy would have sounded off-key to an American audience accustomed to hearing the strains of moral certitude and justified vengeance. But to Carlton Bartels, had he been alive, the Second Inaugural, far more than the Gettysburg Address, might have struck the right chord.

Historian Michael Vorenberg is the Vartan Gregorian Assistant Professor and the author of Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment.
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