SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — A military cemetery that sits on the grounds of a former training site for Union soldiers now features a plaque emblazoned with the words President Abraham Lincoln spoke to the nation as that great Civil War came winding to a costly close.
After dedicating the plaque at an unveiling ceremony at the Camp Butler National Cemetery on Wednesday morning, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address was “the most powerful speech ever delivered by an American president.”
Wilkie’s visit to Lincoln’s hometown comes at a time of national reckoning over history, culture and race, including calls from some activists who want to see statues of Lincoln come down.
“We have heard calls to remove Mr. Lincoln from our collective memory,” Wilkie said during his remarks. “We’ve watched vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. We’ve also been under renewed pressure here at the Department of Veterans Affairs to take away his words on the sides of our buildings and in our cemeteries.”
Instead, the Department of Veterans Affairs will install the plaque at military cemeteries nationwide.
“There are people who want to erase American history,” Wilkie warned. “We are certainly not going to be party to that. It’s this history that gives us hope that the kind of unrest and unease that we see now will be put to rest.”
Lincoln delivered those remarks in March of 1865, just months after winning re-election to a second term, and just weeks before winning the Civil War.
The crowd who gathered to hear the inauguration was expecting to hear a more victorious tone, according to Lincoln historian Christian McWhirter, who works at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
“Lincoln doesn’t give people what they expect in that speech,” McWhirter said. “He gives a very somber, intellectual, spiritual speech. Some say it’s almost like a sermon where he, instead of kind of celebrating the North’s victory, Lincoln reflects on the suffering of the war, the violence of the war, the the amount of blood that had been shed, and starts to philosophize about what it what it all might mean. And it kind of sets a much darker tone than people expected.
“Lincoln kind of comes to the conclusion that the suffering of the war might be an atonement for the sin of slavery, and that maybe the reason why the war has gone on so long, why it’s been so costly, is because it’s the nation — the whole nation, not just the south, the whole nation — paying the price for the sin of slavery.”
Wilkie, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, acknowledged the recent rise in national tensions after videos showed a number of police officers shooting, killing or injuring Black Americans, but he also condemned the violent acts of retribution that have sprung up in the form of arson, vandalism or looting amid many of the protests.
“Certainly we have to root out injustice,” Wilkie said. “But what you see happening on the streets is the destruction of so many families, their businesses and their lives. That has nothing to do with fighting injustice the way Lincoln would have wanted us to fight injustice.”
After a recent summer outbreak of protests mixed with looting in Chicago, state Representative Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) said while he condemned the criminal acts of violence or vandalism, he saw the acts of anger as expressions of anguish and resentment that had been building under the weight of racial injustices suffered over the course of decades.
“People have felt this for a very long time,” Buckner said in June. “This is not just about [George Floyd’s] death. This is about the death of hundreds of folks who have been unarmed and killed by law enforcement. Furthermore, it’s also about economic disinvestment. It’s about, you know, neighborhoods and places not feeling safe, healthy and educated. This is about people feeling marginalized, and forgotten and ignored.”
“This was about, to a lot of folks, spreading the pain around,” he said. “It was about spreading the anguish and making sure that people understood that people were upset.”
In his official remarks, Wilkie highlighted Lincoln’s own words that painted the tremendous economic cost of war as a righteous judgment for the sin of slavery, even if it cost business owners all the wealth and profit they had accumulated from slave labor.
“Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away,” Lincoln said. “Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'”
“Lincoln’s words that day marked the end of early America during which an entire nation struggled to reconcile the lofty expressions of its founding documents with the harsh reality that did not live up to that meaning,” Wilkie said.
“These words are not something frozen in time that prohibits us from caring for any group of Americans,” he said, “but a seed that blossomed over the last 155 years, and allowed America to become the most tolerant nation in the history of this planet.”