Steven Spielberg’s broadly but thinly acclaimed “Lincoln” drew on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s very good book, “A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” [Simon & Schuster, 2005], but what
Goodwin deeply understood the moviemaker missed. The centerpiece legislative battle over passage of the 13th Amendment was not the showpiece of Lincoln’s political genius, rather that was his unwavering determination to lead the nation and his political associates to overcome an embedded flaw in the Constitution. It was the intellectual allegiance he pledged to the Declaration of Independence, coupled with his immense personal skill in persisting in that allegiance.
I raise this with Memorial Day in the offing because Lincoln’s most refined expression of this guiding principle was his Gettysburg Address, which, unlike presidents these days, he scribbled and re-scribbled on the train from Washington to Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s words that day over that terrible battleground are most often associated with the Civil War. It was the Civil War’s dead, North and South, who were the first to be remembered on Memorial Day. I’ve written this before, but for me, and I hope for you, this story refreshes the symbolic heart of Memorial Day.
Lincoln saw war as it is. “It breathed forth famine, swam in blood, and rode on fire,” he wrote of the Revolutionary War. “And long, long after, the orphan’s cry and the widow’s wail continued to break the sad silence that ensued.”
Honoring the graves of the war dead began before the close of the Civil War. In the South, the town of Columbus, Mississippi, held observances for fallen Union and Confederate soldiers in 1866. Waterloo, New York, is the birthplace of Memorial Day in the North.
Officially, in 1868, Commander in Chief John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic issued a general order designating May 30 of that year “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”
At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, several years before Memorial Day was institutionalized, the battlefield was strewn not with flowers but with dead horses and dead men, more than 10,000 soldiers, most of them Southerners.
Gary Wills, in “Lincoln at Gettysburg” (Simon and Schuster, 1992), describes that desolate battlefield just after the guns quieted and just months before Lincoln spoke at its dedication as a cemetery: “rotting horseflesh and manflesh — thousands of fermenting bodies, with gas-distended bellies, deliquescing in the July heat. For hygienic reasons, the five thousand horses (or mules) had to be consumed by fire, trading the smell of burning flesh for that of decaying flesh. Eight thousand human bodies were scattered over, or (barely) under the ground. Suffocating teams of soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and dragooned civilians slid the bodies beneath a minimal covering, as fast as possible … The buzzards themselves had not stayed to share in this labor — days of incessant shelling had scattered them far off.”
What good can possibly be made of such horror as this with just the words and memories Islanders will offer Monday, and with the invocation of the Declaration’s cadences?
On Nov. 19, 1863, his speech just 272 words long, Lincoln reinterpreted what had occurred just a few months before and transformed Americans’ understanding of their Constitution while he was at it. War was stunning, desperate, and horrifying, but in it Lincoln discovered chastening and revivifying lessons.
As Wills puts it, “Lincoln is here [at the dedication ceremony] not only to sweeten the air of Gettysburg, but to clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution — not… by burning an instrument that countenanced slavery. He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise…he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight-of-hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting…. ” Political sleight-of-hand, characteristic of his management of his balking cabinet and the Congress, was divine political prestidigitation, in service to the fundamental ideal on which his defeat of the secessionist slave owners was built.
With 272 words, in his Gettysburg Address, “Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.”
Absent Lincoln, Monday will nevertheless be meaningful. Even in these rootless times when history’s hold on us has weakened, Memorial Day can be about absent fathers and brothers and sons, but it can also be about more than that. It can recall founding principles and the ideas for which so many have sacrificed so utterly and for which the youngest and the best of us continue that “unfinished work” as they struggle today against sworn enemies.
As Lincoln told the thousands who heard him at Gettysburg, “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…”