The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it.
– Garry Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg)
We don’t know where Abraham Lincoln stood when he gave the Gettysburg address. On that day, November 19, 1863, no one thought to permanently mark the spot. After all, the focus was on the fallen soldiers, not the speakers. Park Rangers today will motion vaguely toward a fence separating the National Soldiers’ Cemetery from the city-managed Evergreen Cemetery. They say Lincoln may have stood on the far side of the fence, in Evergreen Cemetery. Back then there was no fence. Their best estimate (based on photographs) is that the speakers platform where Lincoln and others stood was somewhere between the statue of the woman holding the flag and the mausoleum with the slate gray roof — that’s only a guess. What is certain is that he did not stand on the spot where the tall monument is today– even though a few folks say he did.
Garry Wills wrote a thoughtful analysis and meditation on the rhetoric of the Gettysburg Address. Among other insights, Wills offers this:
Lincoln was able to achieve the loftiness, ideality, and brevity of the Gettysburg Address because he had spent a good part of the 1850s repeatedly relating all the most sensitive issues of the day to the Declaration’s supreme principle. If all men are created equal, they cannot be property. They cannot be ruled by owner-monarchs. They must be self-governing in the minimal sense of self-possession. Their equality cannot be denied if the nation is to live by its creed, and voice it, and test it, and die for it. All these matters are now contained in the pregnant formulae of the Address.
During my recent visit, I was told that there is only one surviving “witness” tree– a honey locust present during the battle.
Soldiers’ National Cemetery is dotted with a wide variety of trees. Sawara Cypress. Kentucky Coffeetree. American Holly. Silver Fir. Nordmann Fir. Balsam Fir. I didn’t have time to write down all the names.
Among the living, growing, trees are the soldiers — known and unknown — who died so the Union could live. Myself, I don’t know any of the names I saw– I’m not kin to anyone buried here, except that we all are American.