Memorial Day, the unofficial first day of summer, is when we pause to remember those who, in Mr. Lincoln’s words, gave the last full measure of devotion to defend America in combat.
And let’s be clear: Lincoln did not write the Gettysburg Address, from which that great phrase comes, on the back of an envelope on the train from Washington, D.C. to that small town in Pennsylvania. As Abraham Lincoln Online notes, “Lincoln carefully prepared his major speeches in advance; his steady, even script in every manuscript is consistent with a firm writing surface . . .” He was too thoughtful a man and too careful a writer to work in any other way.
I suspect the legend of the president dashing off the speech as he made his way to dedicate the cemetery at Gettysburg derives from the speech’s brevity: just 275 words – 279 if “cannot” is written, as Mr. Lincoln did in its three uses, as two words. (The full text of the speech – of which there are several versions – is today’s Notable item .)
When I was a kid in elementary school, we memorized the speech. We studied it. It taught us a great deal about rhetoric, the art of speaking and writing in such a way that your words have power and clarity. Indeed, power comes from clarity.
Mr. Lincoln famously said that nobody would remember the speeches given that day (the noted orator Edward Everett also spoke – for two hours!), but one contemporary journalist wrote that the “world noted at once what [Lincoln] said, and will never cease to remember it,” which was true; even adding that the “battle itself was less important than the speech,” which, one hopes, is untrue.
Mr. Everett later published a book about the events of that day that included his own 13,607-word oration, Lincoln’s speech, plus commentary and maps, and the book’s title alone rivaled in length the president’s speech: Address of the Hon. Edward Everett At the Consecration of the National Cemetery At Gettysburg, 19th November 1863, with the Dedicatory Speech of President Lincoln, and the Other Exercises of the Occasion; Accompanied by An Account of the Origin of the Undertaking and of the Arrangement of the Cemetery Grounds, and by a Map of the Battle-field and a Plan of the Cemetery.
It’s not known how many listeners were still awake when Mr. Lincoln finally rose to dedicate the new cemetery, where more than 3,000 lay at rest.
Every soldier who ever became a soldier has embraced the possibility of death in battle. I’ve left gender-specific pronouns out of that sentence, but it’s mostly men who have died fighting, although as women have become more present in the armed forces, they too have faced the ultimate sacrifice, and 149 have died in combat since 9/11 .
In 2009, I wrote a Memorial Day column here, “A Prayer for Soldiers ,” that received some respectful comment but that also led some to chide me, since it was about my son’s graduation from West Point (a week-long celebration, ongoing when I wrote it) and my critics’ point was: the Memorial holiday is only about those killed in war.
That’s true – up to a point. As I wrote then:
As the rest of the Corps of Cadets marched away, back to the great stone barracks, the thousand Firsties [i.e. “first classmen” or seniors] remained alone on the wide expanse of grass known as The Plain. The music played by the USMA band echoed around the barracks arches, so that you thought you were hearing the answering sound of marches played by ghosts, welcoming the Class of 2009 into the Long Gray Line that reaches back to 1802 and beyond. Most of the rest of the Corps bore rifles on their shoulders; the Firsties carried swords, which glinted in the sunlight and made a most remarkable, martial sound as, regiment by regiment, the cadets sheathed them in unison. At one point, there was silence but for the drums and clicking cameras and, here and there, the sniffling of family and friends.
And I thought: Why am I crying now? And I realized: Because these noble men and women live by the highest ideal of all, self-sacrifice.
I was with some of those soldiers a couple of weeks ago, fine young men one and all: Army buddies of my older son who was married on May 4th in Colorado. His groomsmen included four men with whom he served (all West Pointers) as well as three childhood buddies, among them his younger brother. There were other soldiers at the wedding too, some of whom had served under him during his deployments in Iraq.
For that 2009 article, I interviewed Father Edson Wood (now gone to the Lord), who was West Point’s chaplain. After acknowledging that the military personnel he’d come to know in his sixteen years there were the best people he had ever known, we spoke about weddings, which were once a big feature of the day of (and just following) graduation and commissioning but were not so much that year.
“Because all or nearly all are headed within a few months to combat deployments?” I asked.
“Yes.” He said. “And that weighs on them. War and death are constantly a part of their realization of destiny.”
Say what you will about the wisdom and effectiveness of American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, those who served in those theaters mostly did so with honor, and those who gave that last full measure did not die in vain, for “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)
Again, the Gettysburg Address is our Notable  today. Read it. Read it to your children or your grandchildren. Better yet, have one of the kids read it. Or memorize it. It never ceases to inspire.