A 1905 artist’s rendering depicts President Abraham Lincoln speaking at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. (Associated Press/Sherwood Lithograph Co. via the Library of Congress)


Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, is a historian and author of “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil War is that it was fought at all. Even when sectional discord culminated in Southern secession in the winter of 1860-61, many Americans remained confident that military conflict could be avoided. Sen. James Chesnut of South Carolina dismissed talk of war by pledging to drink whatever blood might be shed. And in his March 1861 inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln insisted that “there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority.”

Even those who did expect armed conflict thought hostilities would be brief and losses minor. At the war’s outset, it seemed almost unimaginable that the North would be willing to fight so long and hard to keep the Southern states in the Union. Confederate military strategy in fact came to rest on an assumption that the North would not sustain its commitment to war in the face of escalating sacrifice. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s search for the decisive battle, his invasions of the North, the Confederacy’s eager anticipation of Lincoln’s electoral defeat in 1864 — all represented a costly and fatal underestimation of the commitment of some 2.2 million Northern soldiers, overwhelmingly volunteers, to the preservation of the Union.

With the inevitability of hindsight, with the nation preserved and projected toward the global leadership we have come to take for granted, we rarely consider that the North might in the mid-19th century have made a different decision, might have let the South secede or perhaps have negotiated a peace in the face of Confederate military successes during the war’s early years. And those millions of Yankee soldiers might have proved unwilling to fight.

Today our military includes only 1 percent of our population. Could we mobilize the equivalent of the Union army? In 1860, the Northern states had 22 million inhabitants; 10 percent of them served; more than 360,000 of them died, offering what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” Would 31 million of our 314 million inhabitants be willing to risk their lives for the nation today? What cause, what circumstances, would motivate them?

Except during Lee’s two brief incursions into the North, Union soldiers of the 1860s were not fending off an invasion or protecting their homes and firesides. Many came from towns and farms at great distances from the Confederacy, from Wisconsin or Michigan or Vermont or Maine. But they came to understand themselves as fighting for something at once more abstract, more selfless, more transcendent and more powerful than their self-interest. We should, to borrow Lincoln’s words uttered 150 years ago this Tuesday, “never forget what they did” and why they did it. Never forget the still-unfinished work they so nobly advanced. Never forget why they chose — and yes, it was for almost all a choice — to fight.

And we must not forget why that leaves a legacy of responsibility for all of us.

I often wonder if the North would have fought, if the ranks would have filled, if there had been a different president — one less able to articulate the war’s meaning and purposes with an eloquence that grew alongside the war’s costs and sacrifices. The song “We Are Coming Father Abra’am, 300,000 More,” popularized after Lincoln’s appeal for additional volunteers in 1862, captures the way in which his call upon the people came to represent the national imperative in the public mind. Could his predecessor in the White House, James Buchanan, have mobilized 2.2 million men?

Lincoln’s rhetoric and, more important, the ideals that rhetoric embodied evolved from the first inaugural address, with its invocation of ties that bound the young nation together in memory and hope, to the Gettysburg Address, with its definition of the war’s true meaning and the nation’s fundamental identity and mission. His language offered to lift Americans above what they might otherwise understand themselves to be, to invest them in the work of saving a nation that was, as he put it in his annual message to Congress in 1862, “the last, best hope of Earth.”

In the course of the war, Lincoln succeeded in defining the American project — what it was, why it mattered and what it required of citizens. As efforts to establish and sustain democracy failed around the world, as Europe turned back toward despotism after the failed revolutions of 1848, government conceived in liberty seemed increasingly imperiled. America’s war was not just about America. Secession, Lincoln proclaimed in a message to Congress in July 1861, threatened “more than the fate of these United States.” It involved “the whole family of man” in its challenge to “a government of the people, by the same people.” What was at risk was “free government upon the Earth.”

The war, he went on, was “essentially a people’s contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. . . . I am most happy to believe that the plain people understand and appreciate this.”

And Lincoln made sure they did. Here in the first summer of the war were the germs of the ideas and ideals that 28 months and tens of thousands of Union deaths later became the Gettysburg Address. But by the fall of 1863, those deaths had brought something new to Lincoln’s understanding and his language. The terrible reality of war’s suffering had come to require that the nation for which so much had been sacrificed be more than just a promise or a hope, even a “last, best hope.” At Gettysburg, Lincoln demanded that the uncountable number of lost lives be rendered purposeful, worth their expense of blood and pain. Now, in 1863, he chose active words such as “dedicate” and “resolve,” words far more compelling than “hope.”

There must be a benefit, he insisted, for the price already paid, a benefit commensurate with the war’s terrible cost, a cost that at the outset no one had expected. With the sense of obligation in his juxtaposition of three uses of “shall” — “shall not have died in vain,” “shall have a new birth of freedom,” “shall not perish” — Lincoln conveyed the significance of the expanded purposes of the war. It was no longer just about the union, about national survival; it was now about a particular sort of union, a better, freer nation than those in 1861 could have imagined. The struggle had not begun as a war to end slavery; only gradually did emancipation emerge as a purpose of Union victory.

Lincoln urged his audience at Gettysburg to persevere in the “unfinished work” before them. Another fearful year and a half of war lay ahead, with yet again as many deaths to come. But Appomattox would not end the work he envisioned. It was the obligations of freedom and nationhood as well as those of war that he urged upon his audience. Seizing the full meaning of liberty and equality still lay ahead.

These are responsibilities that belong to us still. Yet on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s immortal speech, where is our stewardship of that legacy? After beginning a new fiscal year by shutting down the government, we are far from modeling to the world why our — or any — democracy should be viewed as the “best hope” for humankind. The world sees in the United States the rapid growth of inequality; the erosion of educational opportunity and social mobility that “afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life”; the weakening of voting rights hard-won over a century of post-Reconstruction struggle.

Is this the nation, the “proposition” to which Lincoln demanded we be dedicated? We can never forget what brave Americans did at Gettysburg, and at Shiloh and Antietam and the Wilderness and on so many battlefields since. But is it not now altogether fitting and proper that we heed Lincoln’s exhortation and rededicate ourselves to honoring those dead by ensuring that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth?


Read more from Outlook:

Five myths about Abraham Lincoln

Five myths about why the South seceded

Read ongoing Washington Post coverage of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War

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