For most people the Gettysburg Address is something they had to memorize in school or a vaguely understood document from the Civil War. For me, the Gettysburg Address represents inspiration for my future as a historian.
A poster of the Gettysburg Address hangs in my office at home. You can tell I am a Civil War nerd since Civil War items, books, and pictures are all over the house (sometimes to the chagrin of my husband). My Gettysburg Address poster is something I picked up cheap during my semester-long stay at Gettysburg College when I was an undergraduate student, but I hang it proudly wherever I live (in my dorm rooms, my first apartment, and now my home office) because I love what it says.
Lincoln is dedicating a brand new National Cemetery of freshly filled graves. In the immediate moment he is remembering the sacrifice of thousands of Union soldiers who died at the Battle of Gettysburg. But in that two-minute speech Lincoln says much more than commemorating the sacrifice of the dead. Consider the last section of the Address:
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.
In this section he calls upon Americans to be dedicated to the work that still is unfinished, mainly the war, and to ensure that the dead did not die in vain. My favorite professor in college once told me that if we ensured that the stories of these men were passed on then the soldiers themselves would keep living. Memory serves many purposes, but one is to ensure that people and lessons learned are not forgotten. Is that not, in essence, what a historian does? We analyze and interpret the past and by doing so ensure that these stories and these men still hold importance. When society still considers these men important, they have not died in vain because they live on and hold significance to us in the modern day. Lincoln issues a call to Americans to not forget the dead of the Civil War, and that call still resonates to us today.
Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated with her Ph.D. from West Virginia University in 2017. She earned her M.A. from West Virginia University in 2012 and her B.A. in history with a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies from Siena College in 2010. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park from 2010-2014 and has worked on various other publications and projects.