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In the summer of 1863 the Confederate armies reached their greatest strength. It was then that, flushed with military ardor, and made bold by what seemed to the southern leaders an unbroken series of victories on the Virginia battlefields, General Lee again crossed the Potomac River, and led his army into the North. He went as far as Gettysburg in Pennsylvania; but there, on the third of July, 1863, suffered a disastrous defeat, which shattered forever the Confederate dream of taking Philadelphia and dictating peace from Independence Hall. This battle of Gettysburg should have ended the war, for General Lee, on retreating southward, found the Potomac River so swollen by heavy rains that he was obliged to wait several days for the floods to go down. In that time it would have been quite possible for General Meade, the Union commander, to follow him and utterly destroy his army. He proved too slow, however, and Lee and his beaten Confederate soldiers escaped. President Lincoln was inexpressibly grieved at this, and in the first bitterness of his disappointment sat down and wrote General Meade a letter. Lee "was within your easy grasp," he told him, "and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. . . . Your golden opportunity is gone and I am distressed immeasurably because of it." But Meade never received this letter. Deeply as the President felt Meade's fault, his spirit of forgiveness was so quick, and his thankfulness for the measure of success that had been gained, so great, that he put it in his desk, and it was never signed or sent.
The battle of Gettysburg was indeed a notable victory, and coupled with the fall of Vicksburg, which surrendered to General Grant on that same third of July, proved the real turning-point of the war. It seems singularly appropriate, then, that Gettysburg should have been the place where President Lincoln made his most beautiful and famous address. After the battle the dead and wounded of both the Union and Confederate armies had received tender attention there. Later it was decided to set aside a portion of the battlefield for a great national military cemetery in which the dead found orderly burial. It was dedicated to its sacred use on November 19, 1863. At the end of the stately ceremonies President Lincoln rose and said:
"Fourscore 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 battlefield 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 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. 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."
With these words, so brief, so simple, so full of reverent feeling, he set aside the place of strife to be the resting place of heroes, and then went back to his own great task--for which he, too, was to give "the last full measure of devotion."
Up to within a very short time little had been heard about Ulysses S. Grant, the man destined to become the most successful general of the war. Like General McClellan, he was a graduate of West Point; and also like McClellan, he had resigned from the army after serving gallantly in the Mexican war. There the resemblance ceased, for he had not an atom of McClellan's vanity, and his persistent will to do the best he could with the means the government could give him was far removed from the younger general's faultfinding and complaint. He was about four years older than McClellan, having been born on April 27, 1822. On offering his services to the War Department in 1861 he had modestly written: "I feel myself competent to command a regiment if the President in his judgment should see fit to intrust one to me." For some reason this letter remained unanswered, although the Department, then and later, had need of trained and experienced officers. Afterward the Governor of Illinois made him a colonel of one of the three years' volunteer regiments; and from that time on he rose in rank, not as McClellan had done, by leaps and bounds, but slowly, earning every promotion. All of his service had been in the West, and he first came into general notice by his persistent and repeated efforts to capture Vicksburg, on whose fall the opening of the Mississippi River depended. Five different plans he tried before he finally succeeded, the last one appearing utterly foolhardy, and seeming to go against every known rule of military science. In spite of this it was successful, the Union army and navy thereby gaining control of the Mississippi River and cutting off forever from the Confederacy a great extent of rich country, from which, up to that time, it had been drawing men and supplies.
The North was greatly cheered by these victories, and all eyes were turned upon the successful commander. No one was more thankful than Mr. Lincoln. He gave Grant quick promotion, and crowned the official act with a most generous letter. "I do not remember that you and I ever met personally," he wrote. "I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further." Then, summing up the plans that the General had tried, especially the last one, he added: "I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong."
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The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln -by- Helen Nicolay