So Costly a Sacrifice

November 21, 1864: Lincoln (allegedly) writes a letter of condolence to a Mrs. Bixby of Massachusetts, whom he was told had lost five sons in the war.bixby_letter

This letter is one of the most powerful compositions I have ever read.  The language and the images move me to tears ever time I read it.  Of course, as it turns out, there are some corrections to the story:

  • Mrs. Bixby herself was a Southern sympathizer.
  • She had lost two sons in battle, not five. (As if having “only” two sons killed was no big deal.)
  • Some modern historians don’t think Lincoln actually wrote it, but rather, his secretary, John Hay.

101PoemsNone of which diminishes the majesty of this prose and the incredible command of the English language.  I fell in love with this letter a long time ago, when I literally found a copy in a little book, in a pile of trash in the closet of an old house we were cleaning out.  (Anybody else remember, “His Place”?)  The book was an anthology called “One Hundred and One Famous Poems, with a Prose Supplement.”  Not exactly an elegant title, but a great collection, none the less.

I was a Freshman at DCC, and just beginning to appreciate the power of language, and here was a brilliant example.  Movie fans will also note that this letter was used in “Saving Private Ryan.”


Executive Mansion,

Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Thank you, Mr. President.

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

addressIt was on this date 150 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history.

Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor:  John Kennedy’s Inaugural, and “Ask not;” Martin Luther King, Jr., and “I have a dream;” FDR and “Fear itself;” even Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and “Malice towards none.”  And as important as those speeches – and many others – were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

gettysburgIn this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war.

And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

There was a time when school children had to memorize it.  In my case, it was in Mrs. Thigpen’s eighth grade class at Orangefield Junior High.  Some may still have to commit it to memory, at least long enough to pass the test.  Good for them.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery.  For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech.  The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left the Executive Mansion (as the White House was called in those days).

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it.  Not so.  It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s true that it was short.  But then, it was supposed to be.  Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union.  President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically.  But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation.  The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census.  It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

In the Bible, words have the power to create.  When God created the cosmos, He did it by speaking it into existence.  When John was writing his gospel under the influence of the Holy Spirit, when he wanted to find a way of describing Jesus’ inner nature, he chose the Greek term “Logos” – the “Word.”

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write; good speakers can do the same, helping see things “as they could be.”  And so in this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them.  He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all.

To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

garry_wills_lincoln_at_gettysburgOut of all the books written about the Gettysburg Address, I think the best is Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg.  Prof. Wills is, in my opinion, a really great historian, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books, including John Wayne’s America.  But he received a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg, and I think the committee got it right.  If you enjoy American or Civil War history, or want to better understand how to use language effectively, I highly recommend it.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations.  Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

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 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 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.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.

My Favorite Season

autumn_railroad_by_celem-d5ogfhqI love autumn.  It’s absolutely my favorite season of the year, for several reasons. (And by the way, no, I didn’t take this picture, I found it on the Internet.  Sure is pretty, though.  I hope the owner doesn’t mind me using it.)

Autumn means we’ve made it through another long, hot, dry Texas summer.  Autumn means crisp mornings and warm afternoons, but with a hint of coolness.  It’s the time for hot chocolate, hay rides, and a good bowl of chili.  (It’s also time for my birthday, and I’m still enough of a kid to enjoy having it come around!)

The fall means Friday Night football, the beautiful fall foliage, and of course, anticipating the holidays bringing fun and fellowship with family and friends.

Autumn can be a sad time for some people.  It can be a time for regret, or becoming distracted by unmet goals, but it doesn’t have to be.  We can make autumn a wonderful season of refreshment and reminding ourselves of what is best, if we will.

Here are some thoughts on making the most of your autumn.

Explore some new colors.  One of the best things about the fall is the bright colors that we see around us –beautiful crimson, the harvest gold, bright yellow, all shades of brown.  Autumn is a great time to take up a new hobby, read that book you’ve been meaning to start, take a trip you’ve been dreaming about making.  Trying new things can be as invigorating as a cool fall morning, so go for it!

Let go of anything holding you back.  Trees are shedding old leaves and dropping their dead stuff.  Sometimes we need to do the same.  Let go of past regrets, self-condemnation and old grudges.  Let bygones be bygones, and forgive.  We forgive, not because others deserve it, but because WE do  As long as you’re holding onto that pain, you’re giving the offender the power to keep hurting you.  When you forgive, their power over you is destroyed.  And forgive yourself, as well.

Appreciate blessings while they last.  Autumn in Texas doesn’t last long; winter will soon be here.  We need to appreciate the blessings that God gives us while they last.  As C.S. Lewis once observed, “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”  In other words, enjoy the blessings that God gives, but realize they are never permanent.

Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed and happy Autumn!