EDMOND — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a five-part series coinciding with “Legacy of Freedom,” a lecture series hosted by Oklahoma Christian University. This week’s scheduled topic “The Bill of Rights and Its Meaning for Today” was changed to focus on Memorial Day. Next week’s concluding topic will be “Can We Reclaim the Founders’ Legacy of Freedom?”
Abraham Lincoln had a relationship with God and understood that it was his destiny to die a sacrificial death for the sake of a nation torn apart by a long, bloody war, a noted scholar said Monday.
J. Rufus Fears, a David Ross Boyd professor of classics at the University of Oklahoma, addressing a “surprisingly large” holiday weekend crowd at Oklahoma Christian University, altered his scheduled lecture topic to honor Memorial Day.
At the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1-3, 1863, more than 51,000 Confederate and Union soldiers were wounded, missing or dead, according to www.ourdocuments.gov.
Many of the dead were buried in makeshift graves along the battlefield. At the time, the Army did not have a burial corps. Instead, before a battle, for $1.25, a traveling mortician would give a soldier six pieces of paper to place about his body so he could write his name on them and be identified if his body was blown apart, Fears said.
“But you were too cheap to spend that $1.25, weren’t you?” Fears said. “You drank yours up and you gambled yours up.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, outraged at the sight, commissioned attorney David Wills to buy land for a proper burial site for the Union soldiers. The attorney bought 17 acres for the cemetery.
On Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Solder’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., the not-so-loquacious Abraham Lincoln played second fiddle to famed orator Edward Everett, who spoke to the crowd for two hours.
“That’s our first real Memorial Day, to dedicate a cemetery to those men who had died there, fighting for freedom, fighting over the same Constitution,” Fears said.
Born in Kentucky, the son of a frontiersman, Lincoln grew up knowing how to read, write and cipher, but that was all. “Honest Abe” hungered for knowledge, and his ambition led him to the presidency. On Jan. 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring freedom for slaves within the Confederacy.
Lincoln had experienced the death of a second son at home less than a year before the Gettysburg Address. As he departed for Gettysburg, his third son was ill. Mary Todd had begged him not to go, but he had given his word to be there.
President Lincoln was not the featured speaker by agreement. Afterwards, The New York Times was critical of Lincoln’s speech. Elsewhere, it was hailed as a triumph.
On Nov. 20, Everett wrote to Lincoln: “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. 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.”
LINCOLN’S DATE WITH DESTINY
The Gettysburg Address had three themes — the Bible, the nation’s uniqueness and that America is a Christian nation, Fears said.
“We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live,” Lincoln said in the speech.
Fears said Christ died so that others would live. When soldiers marched into battle, Fears said, they would sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Its lyrics include “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me: As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free ...”
Days after the Civil War ended, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington by actor John Wilkes Booth, and died the following day. Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, Fears noted.
Lincoln, who was the nation’s most religious president, knew he was going to have to die, Fears said. He knew the war was necessary to free the slaves. And he came to understand his God-given destiny.
“Mr. Lincoln knew he had to die to atone for all the human suffering he had caused,” Fears said. “That’s leadership.”
MEMORIAL DAY EVOLVES
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of war dead with flowers.
One of the first local observances occurred in Columbus, Miss., on April 25, 1866, when a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had fallen in battle at Shiloh.
Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed some of their flowers on those graves as well.
In 1966, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., the “birthplace” of Memorial Day. By the end of the 19th century, Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. After World War I, the day was expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday.
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