155 years ago, on November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivered what has become his most famous address. He was not the main speaker and his remarks lasted all but two minutes. However, what he said captured the hearts and minds of Americans then, as well as serving as a reminder for us today. To understand its significance, we must be reminded about how strategic the battle of Gettysburg was and why Lincoln spoke on the battlefield only four months later. Lincoln’s remarks can also remind us of our Pilgrim roots as a nation and why we must continue to keep them alive.
The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War. Though there were constitutional issues between the northern and southern states, the underlying issue was slavery. Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate troops of the south, entered Pennsylvania in June of 1863. He wanted to defeat the north on their own soil to force Lincoln to sue for peace. Only three days before the battle of Gettysburg, General Hooker was replaced by General George Meade, who kept the northern army between Lee and Washington, DC.
From a providential viewpoint, the American Revolution would never have been won by the Colonies had not God intervened. At the same, time, the South would never have lost the Civil War had not God intervened. The South was in revival and the North was forgetting its Christian roots. Though the South had a legitimate case against the North constitutionally, the South was morally wrong on slavery and it made God their adversary!
The fighting north of Gettysburg on July 1st was won by the South and Northern troops retreated through Gettysburg to Cemetery and Culp’s Hill. July the 2nd featured assaults by Lee on many fronts, but Meade’s troops held firm. It was on July 3rd that Pickett’s Charge (12,000 Confederate troops) would be repulsed with 1,100 dead and 4,000 wounded. A total of 51,000 soldiers died at Gettysburg making it the bloodiest battle. The town’s 2,400 residents had to bury or care for 21,000 following the battle. Rain caused the spread of disease as women cared for both northern and southern wounded not captured or removed. Most were buried right where they died but have since been moved to the main cemetery at Gettysburg or other southern cemeteries. Northern soldier’s graves are much better documented than the South.
When the date was set for a commemoration of the Union troops who had given their lives at Gettysburg, expectations were high for an amazing address. After all, Edward Everett had been chosen to speak, and he would deliver a memorized, two-hour, 13,000 word oration. He served as a Congressman, Senator, Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain and U.S. Secretary of State. He taught at Harvard and served as its President. But he was best known by this time as one of America’s most famous orators. It would be one of his last speeches, for he died a hear and a half later. When President Lincoln was asked to speak, he promised it would be “short, short, short.”
Everett gave a magnificent oration. It was historic, drawing on the ideas planted by the Pilgrims, Puritans and Patriots, and included a detailed history of the battle of Gettysburg, which many were hearing about for the first time. He also had a plea for reconciliation between the North and the South. A diarist wrote, “Mr. Everett was listened to with breathless silence by all that immense crowd, and he had his audience in tears many times.”
Then Lincoln followed for some dedicatory remarks. He began, “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.” He dated the origin of the nation with the Declaration of Independence (1776), not with the ratification of the Constitution (1789). Our constitution rests on the Declaration and its truths. The Confederate States Constitution in contrast had no reference to the Declaration or that “all men are created equal.”
Lincoln stated, “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.” Lincoln implies that all who died are to be honored. Many had come to honor only the North, but both Everett and Lincoln called them higher.
He continues that theme when he states, “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot 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.” The world has remembered what Lincoln said since the words speak of transcendent ideas and agree with the biblical, eternal truth.
Lincoln concludes “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.” The ideas of government by consent of the governed, rights from God and our goal to preserve liberty for our posterity are all ideas the Pilgrims brought to these shores nearly 400 years ago! The new birth of freedom is the way a nation is “born again,” renewing its dedication to its original covenant with God.
Everett wrote Lincoln “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself, that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Everett had said after Lincoln’s speech, “I venture in the spirit of prophecy that no one will remember what I said, but all will remember what he said.” History has proven Everett correct, but most importantly Lincoln’s address reminded us what makes our nation unique. We are not great because we are Americans. We are only great to the degree that we remain faithful to the ideas, drawn from the Bible, upon which our nation was founded.
In Tennessee there is a place called Pall Mall in Fentress County. The valley below is called the Valley of the Three Forks in the Wolf (the Wolf river forks into three branches at that point). This place is literally in the middle of nowhere. Like the Bible hero David who slew lions and bears in the wilderness long before he ever appeared on the scene to publicly kill Goliath, Alvin would grow up as the best marksman in the wilderness shooting turkeys and ducks; but God had a wider plan for him 100 years ago this month.
Alvin’s father died on Christmas day, 1911 on his 30th wedding anniversary when Alvin was 24 years old. Alvin then took full responsibility to provide for his mother and eight younger brothers and sisters. His two older brothers had already left home. Little did anyone know, especially Alvin, that he would end up being the most decorated war hero of World War I!
Alvin’s sinful lifestyle of drinking, carousing and cursing caused his family and hometown all kinds of problems until Melvin Russell, a circuit-riding preacher led him to the Lord on January 1, 1915. He was discipled by Pastor Pile in his home town. One of the teachings of his home church was “pacifism,” that no one who believes in God and Christ should go to war or kill anyone, even in self-defense, since the Bible said simply, “Thou shalt not kill.” When America declared war on Germany in 1917, York received his induction notice two months later but submitted his request to be exempt due to religious convictions. His request was denied, and Alvin walked twelve miles to submit to authority and fight for his country, but declaring his convictions not to be in direct combat.
On November 15, 1917 Alvin York said farewell to his family as well as his betrothed fiance Gracie (who was only 18 years old, though Alvin was nearly 30). After training at Camp Gordon, Georgia (where he excelled in markmanship), he was assigned to Company G, 328th Batalion 1st Platoon, 82nd Division. He asked advice from his company commander, Captain Edward Danforth, and battalion commander, Major Gonzalo Buxton, about his beliefs in not killing anyone under any circumstance. They reasoned with him from Scripture, showing him that murder was distinct from self-defense. They also showed him that the Bible forbids revenge but not defense since Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 22:36, “He who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” If no one could ever fight, it would be allowing evil to triumph throughout the world. They then sent him home for a couple of weeks to pray and ask God what he should do. He returned ready to fight for his country! What a blessing to have such military commanders who know God’s Word!
In May of 1918 York arrived on the French shores to report for duty to break the supply line of the Germans utilizing the French railways. He was part of a company who walked through the mud to attack German machine-gunners and take the railway for the Allies. On October 8, 1918, a rainy, foggy and chilly day the troops move forward over the muddy road. German gun-fire is killing many Americans. Alvin sees the horrors of war and prays for both sides, committed to fight as a last resort.
At 6 AM of October 8 they were given orders to charge down a ridge into an open field to dislodge German machine-gunners. The charge began, but with no artillery support as promised hundreds died in minutes as the brush they hid behind was scraped from the earth. Three squads began to get behind the gunners but only 17 were left. After surprising German medics carrying wounded soldiers, they chased them into the woods and came upon over 20 Germans and Prussians eating breakfast unarmed. They took them all prisoners under the command of Corporal Bernard Early.
Suddenly the machine-gunners turned their turrets around and fired on the Americans holding their prisoners, instantly killing or mortally wounding 9 of the 17 Americans. They hid behind their prisoners, holding them captive, but the only one still firing on the ground was York. He was now in command due to the deaths of three Corporals. Now that the gunners realized the Americans were behind their prisoners, they had to quickly stand up before firing. Each time they stood up, York shot them in the head before they could fire their machine gun. It said the turkey contests had trained him for this at home! He took only one shot for each or he would have been killed. He kept calling for them to surrender, “That’s enough now! You boys quit and come on down!”
He now stood up since there was no more brush to hide him and kept killing machine-gunners. Suddenly a mounted charge of six soldiers came at him with fixed bayonets. Looking at them like ducks in formation, he picked off the outer soldiers in the back first and then only a few feet in front of him he killed the leader with one shot. One miss would have meant death, and if he had killed the leader, the others would have gone down into a roll and killed him since he couldn’t shoot in all directions at once. With only seven they had over 20 prisoners. Appearing larger other German troops surrendered.
German Lieutenant Vollmer was ordered by York to call a cease-fire, which he did. In York’s words: “I told him he had better. I covered him with my automatic and told him if he didn’t make them stop firing I would take his head next. And he knowed I meaned it. So he blowed his whistle and they came down out of the trench and throwed down their guns and equipment and held up their hands and begun to gather around. I guess, though, one of them thought he could get me. He had his hands up all right. But he done had a little hand grenade concealed, and as he come up to me he throwed it right at my head. But it missed me and wounded one of the prisoners. I hed to tech him off. The rest surrendered without any trouble.” In total he now had 129 prisoners and 3 officers. When one Ameican General said “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole German army”, York said, “No, sir, I only got 132.” York wrote that night in his diary, “So I am a witness to the fact that God did help me out of that hard battle; for the bushes were shot up all around me and I never got a scratch.”
On April 18, 1919, Good Friday, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. When offered $185,000 to promote himself he said, “Uncle Sam’s uniform ain’t for sale.” He married Gracie and they named their children Woodrow Wilson, Sam Houston, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and Betsey Ross in honor of America. The State of Tennessee deeded a newly-built home to Alvin and Gracie. In 1939 he desired to open a Bible school to give children an education in Tennessee. In 1940 he signed a contract to film the Sargeant York Story (which I highly recommend), personally picking Gary Cooper to play him. But now he faced another battle – an 18 year conflict with the I.R.S. over income taxes. Ed Sullivan asked the American people to help York and the entire debt was paid! On September 2, 1964 York died at the age of 76. His wife, Gracie died in 1984 at the age of 84. It is heroes like Alvin York, a common every day American, that have made this nation great!