Roy Exum: Our Worst 4th Of July

Friday, July 4, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Today we celebrate Independence Day and, while this will make little if any sense to some, allow me to offer a different view of our most treasured national holiday. One hundred and fifty one years ago on this very day an estimated 50,000 Americans lay dead on a blood-soaked battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa.

So great was the horror that fallen men and dead animals were buried where they lay, if you can imagine such. What would turn out to be the biggest battle of the Civil War had just ended after three bloody days and, with Vicksburg’s surrender to General Grant on July, 4, 1863, the Civil War -- for all intents and purposes – had been decided.

It had to be the worst Independence Day this nation has ever had and a great story, I believe, is the way one of our greatest leaders actually handled it. On July 5th, Abraham Lincoln went into the carnage at Gettysburg to visit Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, whose leg had been blown off by cannon, and as the two men talked, Gen. Sickles asked President Lincoln if he had been worried about the battle and its outcome.

It just so happened another general, James F. Rusling, was standing by Sickles’ bed and overheard the President’s answer. He carefully recorded it for future generations. "No, I was not; some of my Cabinet and many others in Washington were, but I had no fears.

“In the pinch of your campaign up there, when everybody seemed panic-stricken, and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day, and I locked the door, and got down on my knees before Almighty God, and prayed to Him mightily for victory at Gettysburg.

“I told Him that this was His war, and our cause His cause, but we couldn't stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. And I then and there made a solemn vow to Almighty God, that if He would stand by our boys at Gettysburg, I would stand by Him..." said Lincoln.

"And He did stand by you boys, and I will stand by Him. And after that … I don't know how it was, and I can't explain it … soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul that God Almighty had taken the whole business into his own hands and that things would go all right at Gettysburg."

Lincoln’s personal sorrow was still immense. On July 15 of 1863, he proclaimed a national Day of Prayer. “It is meet and right to recognize and confess the presence of the Almighty Father and the power of His hand equally in these triumphs and in these sorrows...

“I invite the people of the United States to...render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things He has done in the nation's behalf and invoke the influence of His Holy Spirit to subdue the anger which has produced and so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion,” he prayed.

But it wasn’t until four months later – on Nov. 19, 1863 – that his greatest words were said as the President dedicated the Soldier’s National Cemetery for both Union and Confederate soldiers alike at the very spot where men and horses had been buried.

What actually happened was Edward Everett, a former Secretary of State who had been a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, made what was called the “Gettysburg Oration,” a two-hour speech that contained 13,607 words, and Lincoln, sick with what is believed to be a mild case of smallpox, was only to make some brief remarks.

Instead he delivered what is considered as America’s greatest speech in just over two minutes. Sen. Everett’s words were quickly forgotten but Lincoln’s will live for eternity. It is based, of course, on our Declaration of Independence, thus “Four score and seven years ago …” was 1776.

As I read The Gettysburg Address, I can get a good grip on what Independence Day really means, back then and now, of what it truly costs, and why it will glow inside our souls from one generation to the next forever and ever.

* * *

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 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.”

* * *

That says it all for me. It took the worst Independence Day ever for us to know … “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


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