The Last Full Measure Of Devotion

Gettysburg National Cemetery
Gettysburg National Cemetery
Give honor where honor is due.
— Romans 15:7

 

Fifteen thousand people watched as the President of the United States rose to speak. Abraham Lincoln put on his steel-rimmed spectacles and glanced at his notes. The occasion was the dedication ceremony for the Soldier's National Cemetery, what we now know as Gettysburg National Cemetery. The committee responsible for dedication asked President Lincoln to deliver "a few appropriate remarks." He complied, using a scant 272 words to convey his message.

Finishing his address, Lincoln turned back to his seat and sat down. The audience, surprised by the brevity of his speech, were slow to applaud. Turning to his friend Ward Lamon, Lincoln said, "Lamon, that speech won't scour! It is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed."

Quite the contrary. Lincoln's remarks at the consecration of Gettysburg National Cemetery have survived 150 years. Students memorize it and scholars analyze it, but today I want to encourage you to read it. Read it slowly. Read it carefully. Put yourself on that battlefield where in just three days 150,000 soldiers fought, 10,000 soldiers were killed, 30,000 were wounded, and another 10,000 were captured or missing.  

President Lincoln's remarks captured the purpose of our national struggle, the devotion of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and the task left to us who are the recipients of their devotion.

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated 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 battle-field 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 may take increased devotion to that cause for which they here 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.  President Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863,  Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Today is Memorial Day. We remember and commemorate the men and women who have "given the last full measure of devotion." One way to do this is to take to heart the “National Moment of Remembrance” resolution that was passed on Dec 2000. The resolution asks all Americans to pause at 3 p.m. local time, “To voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence or listening to 'Taps'.” President Obama is encouraging the same (click here to read his comments).

God calls his own to "give honor where honor is due" (Romans 13:7). We owe a debt of honor to our fallen soldiers. May we, in the words of President Lincoln, "take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion." Their devotion has helped to secure our freedom. We steward that freedom well when we serve God and country.

_______________

  1. Gettysburg casualties were taken from "Gettysburg National Cemetery, Gettysburg Pennsylvania," www.nps.gov. Accessed May 25, 2014.
  2. "That speech won't scour ..."  Lamon,Ward Hill. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847-1865, in Chapter XI, "The True History of the Gettysburg Speech." Washington, D.C. 1911. Find at www.gutenberg.org. Garry Wills, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lincoln At Gettysburg, takes issue with the Lamon claim.
  3. I am indebted to Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005, pages 583-587) for essential details surrounding Lincoln's remarks at Gettysburg which are woven into this post.
  4. "The National Moment of Remembrance" from www.usmemorialday.org. Accessed May 25, 2014.