1863: The Great Task Before Us—Introduction

This coming weekend will be Emerging Civil War’s 9th Annual Symposium, and we’ll be exploring the theme “1863: The Great Task Before Us.” To coincide with the event, we’ve invited our authors to create a blog series around the same topic. We’ll also take this opportunity to spotlight some of the 1863 content in the ECW blog archives and more recent writings for the 160th anniversaries this year.

Parsing the phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address offers an interesting opportunity to explore and set some groundwork for the series (and upcoming Symposium discussions). The line comes from the last sentence of the sixteenth president’s few, short remarks on November 19, 1863:

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. (emphasis added)

“The” – it is not “a” task, it is “the” task according to Lincoln. In grammar studies, “a” and “an” are the indefinite articles while “the” is the definitive article. “The” is defining the importance that Lincoln placed on remembering the fallen and pursuing a more perfect union with a new birth of freedom.

Great” – this adjective subtly and powerfully begins to emphasize what is at stake as Lincoln lays out the challenge for the future.

“Task” – According to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, this word in its noun form can be defined as “business imposed by another, of a definite quantity or amount of labor; business or employment; burdensome employment.” All three definitions fit the context Lincoln considered, but perhaps “burdensome employment” gives the most vivid word picture. The burden of continuing the war. The burden and gravity of continuing the American Experiment in government and pursuit of liberty.

“Remaining” – it is still there and the goal has not moved, Lincoln reminds his listeners. Arguably, the war aims had broadened in 1863 with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but the task remained: unify the country and continue to define what freedom meant. (ECW intentionally dropped this word from the Symposium title theme and the blog series title for the sake of word count…and because not all history moments remain ahead of us.)

“Before” – it is ahead of where we stand today. It is a task, project, or goal that must always be pursued. Will it actually ever be attained?

“Us” – this unifying word does not limit itself to Lincoln’s listeners at Gettysburg in November 1863. Rather, it reaches toward any collective of citizens or people and implies the importance of working together. One person alone will not achieve this goal which Lincoln continues to envision as the speech goes on toward its ending.

“The Great Task Before Us” – we draw the words and some inspiration from Lincoln’s address, but the phrase can be taken into other historical realms. The waiting moments to attack and capture a harbor. The political maneuverings to keep an army in the field and a homefront morale supporting a war effort. The feeling of determination to win on the next battlefield. The view of looking toward the besieged city of Vicksburg. The possibility of trying to make sense of historic memory. The need to find ways to remember sacrifice or loss.

The phrase for the Symposium and the new blog series is drawn from a specific moment and speech in 1863, but let the words shift a bit and let it be a lens to explore familiar accounts and new stories in emerging ways. We hope you’ll join us on the journey here on the blog as we re-examine some of the letters, events, and people at the center of great, transforming tasks in 1863.

1 Response to 1863: The Great Task Before Us—Introduction

  1. When I was in the eighth grade, I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, and recite it in front of the class. At that time the address was just so many words to memorize. There was no real understanding of the importance of those words. Sarah, you hit it out of the park for me. Really enjoyed reading and better understanding that portion of the address.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!