General Colin L. Powell

1992

Thank you very much sir, for that most kind introduction.

And thank you, ladies and gentleman, for your warm reception on this somewhat chilly, rainy, but yet in its own way, beautiful day.

President Roach, Congressman Goodling, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen and, most especially, the boys and girls here today, I am honored—very honored—to be with you.

I want to thank The Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania for inviting me and, more importantly, for continuing this great tradition commemorating the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.

This is a very special ceremony.  I am pleased that we have such a wonderful group of people and such a perfect setting for it.  Historians tell us that they cannot identify the exact spot from which Abraham Lincoln delivered his brief remarks; but all of us here should imagine that we are very close to where our beloved president actually stood on this day.

Being so close, we are profoundly moved and our memories are vividly concentrated.  We are mindful of the battlefield, the monuments, the national cemetery, the sheer immensity of it all.  We are engulfed by a crucial moment in American history.

In the fields and on the hills around us two mighty American armies clashed head-on in the fearsome struggle that would be the turning point of our Civil War—a Civil War that took the lives of more Americans than all of our other wars combined.

Many of those brave Americans fell here at Gettysburg.  Pennsylvanians and Virginians.  New Yorkers and Georgians.  Farmers from North Carolina.  Farmers from Indiana.  Ten thousand men fell here never again to see the dawn of another day.  Altogether, there were 51,000 casualties.

The battle’s names, the battle’s places are burned indelibly into our minds.  Joshua Chamberlain.  Robert E. Lee.  George G. Meade.  James Longstreet.  Cemetery Ridge.  The Devil’s Den.  Little Round Top.  The Valley of Death.  Pickett’s Charge.  Gettysburg.

Gettysburg.  The very name breathes our history.  The very name signals us to be still, to be reverent, for we are confronting ourselves in the mirror of time.

Time’s mirror reminds us of the awful tragedy of war.  So many young men who would never grow up.  So many women whose husbands and sons would never embrace them again.  So much sacrifice.  So much pain.  So much loss in the terrible fury of those three days here at Gettysburg.

At the end of the third, decisive day of the battle, Lieutenant Jesse Bowman Young of the Union Army’s 3rd Corps wrote these words:

“The next morning was the Fourth of July, but it seemed at the time . . . a somber and terrible national anniversary, with indescribable horrors of the field . . . before the eye in every direction.  The army did not know the extent of the victory; the nation did not realize as yet what had been done.”

But by November, one man would understand what had been done.  Abraham Lincoln would come to this place where we now gather and bring meaning to the enormous sacrifice and pain of Gettysburg.

Lincoln came simply to dedicate the soldiers’ cemetery.  With coffins still stacked nearby and spent shells littering the fields, Lincoln did much, much more than that.

He spoke to thousands of people who had gathered for the dedication ceremony.  He also spoke to every future generation of Americans.

He spoke of what Gettysburg meant in the great sweep of world history: that America, humanity’s greatest experiment in democracy, should have a new birth of freedom and the government of the people, by the people, for the people should not perish from the earth.

Lincoln knew that if the great American experiment failed, then freedom failed.  If the Union lost, the great progress of the world was set back a century or more; perhaps forever.  At Gettysburg, the world’s future was in the balance.  And at Gettysburg, the world won.

That great victory, and the ultimate victory that would follow at Appomattox Courthouse, set the stage for a revolutionary change in the world, just as Lincoln knew it would.  The preservation of the American union and the struggle for the basic human dignity that became its primary motivation, established the foundation for America’s growth.

Politically and economically we became the world’s leading power.  Our example proved to people everywhere what liberty in harness could do, what powerful values could create, what a union of free men and women was capable of accomplishing.

Lincoln had told the Congress in December 1862, seven months before Gettysburg, that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve.”

Father Abraham Lincoln would be very proud today, for today our example has shown the way to liberty and independence to so many around the world: to Poles, to Hungarians, to Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukranians, and a host of others.

Yes, it is true that many of these newly-freed people are confronting wrenching and difficult situations—just as we did in 1863.  But how hopeful it is that they wrestle with their liberties instead of with their chains.

The brave men who died on this battlefield laid the foundation for this struggle as surely as did Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence 87 years before Gettysburg.

Jefferson gave the world the words of freedom.  Gettysburg gave the world the blood of freedom.  After Gettysburg, a reborn America was destined to lead itself and to lead the rest of the world to true freedom.

We did not come to this role of world leadership as tyrant or as king.  We came to it as a union of free men and free women.  We offer our leadership so that others might follow—not into the constraining bonds of empire, but into the full and unfettered liberty of justice, law, and human rights.  With America, history had evolved a new power on this earth—a trusted power, a power with a purpose of liberty.

Today, nations around the world are making our founding words, “We the people,” a fundamental part of their own constitutional vocabulary.  Today, it is we the people who are taking charge.  It is we the people who are giving orders.  It is we the people who are throwing our tyrants, dictators and despots.

When new national leaders around the world speak, they speak of their allegiance to the people, of their power from their people, and the obligation to the people.

Just last week in Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin of Russia said: “I took an oath to serve the people—the people, and nobody else.” A direct link from Moscow back here to Gettysburg.

In June of 1990 when Nelson Mandela spoke to a joint session of Congress, I sat in the audience and listened very carefully.  What he said went straight to my heart.

This black man who had been in a South African jail for 27 years said that he went to jail because it would have been immoral not to go to jail.  He said, “It would have been an act of treason against the people” not to have gone to jail for his beliefs.  And then he explained why.  He said, “We could not have made an acquaintance through literature with human giants such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, and not been moved to act as they were moved to act.”

Yes, my friends, Gettysburg was a stunning victory.  It was a victory for the Union.  It was a victory for America.  It was a victory for the world. 

And it was especially a victory for black Americans, African-Americans.  For my profession, the profession of soldiering, the results of that victory became immediately evident.

Not only did African-Americans fight for freedom in the Civil War—186,000 strong, to include the 54th Massachusetts that you see presented before you—but following the war, in 1866, President Johnson signed a law which, for the first time, permitted black slaves to serve in the uniform of the nation in time of peace.

This new law created 6 regiments of black soldiers, two Cavalry and four Infantry.  From that small but vital beginning, came the Buffalo Soldiers who helped win the West; the famous 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I; the Tuskegee Airmen, the Navy’s Golden 13, the 92nd Infantry Division—all of World War II fame.  These units, plus dozens of others, were filled with black Americans dedicated to their nation, African-Americans in uniform.

But our nation still gave them less than their due.  These men and women continued to fight for America while the benefits of being a citizen were largely denied to them.  Slowly, time worked its progress.  Sacrifice followed sacrifice, soldier followed soldier, courage piled up on courage until today.

I am proud to say that I am the first African-American in the over 50 years of this anniversary ceremony to deliver these annual words of commemoration.

But I do not come here alone.  I come here accompanied by the hundreds of thousands of black men and women who served before me, the unsung heroes of a hundred battlefields in more than half a dozen wars since our Civil War. It was on their strong backs, and on the firm foundation of a free Union laid right here at Gettysburg, that I would climb to become the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces of our nation.

Father Abraham would be doubly proud.  His tireless efforts as Commander-in-Chief reaped great rewards—for America, for the world, for African-Americans, and for all Americans who love this country.

In his first Inaugural Address, Lincoln used the imagery of the battlefield and of the homeplace when he described what America’s goal was, is, and always must be.  These words of Lincoln are as relevant today as they were over a century ago on the eve of the most tragic war our nation ever fought.

Lincoln said: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely as they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

It would take many a battlefield and many a patriot grave to arouse the better angels of our nature, but it happened; and that has made all the difference in the world.  And it will continue to make the difference.  The powerful movement of freedom and democracy now sweeping the world is unstoppable as long as America continues to lead.  And she will lead.

Whatever your preference two weeks ago on Election Day, as Americans we once again bore witness to the American miracle that Lincoln and the heroes of Gettysburg made eternal. 

In January, one President and Commander-in-Chief will depart and another will take his place—all done at the will of the people.

Today, as Lincoln said 129 years ago, it is for us, the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work which lies ahead in the challenging days of the future.

So, ladies and gentlemen, let us here today thank Lincoln for what he gave us.  Let us thank the men who fought died here for what they gave us.  And let us dedicate ourselves to the unfinished business of America.  Let us promise to be equal to Gettysburg, to give the last full measure of our devotion to our nation.  Let us lift our beloved America to new heights, to new prosperity, and to a new and brighter tomorrow.

God bless our land and thank you for letting me share this ceremony with you.


Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania



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