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Gettysburg Address

Four score 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 battle-field 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 can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not 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.

The above 273 words were delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the bloodist battle of the Civil War.

depiction of Abraham Lincoln delivering his Gettysburg Address
depiction of Abaham Lincoln delivering his Gettysburg Address

Background

From July 1 to July 3, 1863, the invading forces of General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army clashed with the Army of the Potomac (under its newly appointed leader, General George G. Meade) at Gettysburg, some 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Casualties were high on both sides: Out of roughly 170,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, there were 23,000 Union casualties (more than one-quarter of the army's effective forces) and 28,000 Confederates killed, wounded or missing (more than a third of Lee's army).

As after previous battles, thousands of Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg were quickly buried, many in poorly marked graves. In the months that followed, however, local attorney David Wills spearheaded efforts to create a national cemetery at Gettysburg. Wills and the Gettysburg Cemetery Commission originally set October 23 as the date for the cemetery's dedication, but delayed it to mid-November after their choice for speaker, Edward Everett, said he needed more time to prepare. Everett, the former president of Harvard College, former U.S. senator and former secretary of state, was at the time one of the country's leading orators. On November 2, just weeks before the event, Wills extended an invitation to President Lincoln, asking him "formally [to] set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks."

David Wills' letter to President Lincoln
David Wills' letter to President Lincoln

Although legend once said that Lincoln wrote the speech on an old envelope during the train trip to Gettysburg, historians have confirmed that he wrote at least half of it before leaving the White House on November 18, and completed writing and revising it that night, after talking with Secretary of State William H. Seward, who accompanied him to Gettysburg. He saw this speech as an opportunity to make a broad statement to the American people on the enormous significance of the war, and he chose his words very carefully.

The Address and Its Aftermath

Noted orator Edward Everett was the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony, and the vast majority of the crowd was actully there to see and hear him, not President Lincoln. Everett's account of the Battle of Gettysburg lasted two hours, and the crowd remained captivated throughout. By contrast, Lincoln spoke for all of two minutes. In fact, by the time photographers covering the event had gotten their cameras prepared Lincoln had completed his remarks and left the stage.

Everett played to the crowd, citing Southern aggression and Confederate conspiracies, while Lincoln made his speech about preserving self-government rather than about any one battle. In fact, he didn't even say the words "Gettysburg," "slavery," "Confederate" or "Union." Instead of delivering an angry diatribe against the Confederacy, as Everett had done, Lincoln emphasized healing the country and working toward the ideals laid out in the Declaration of Independence. And, while Everett filled his oratory with flowery and archaic phrases, Lincoln's speech was simple and plainspoken. Lincoln was said to have not been very impressed with his speech, and initial public reaction was less than enthusiastic, but Everett later wrote to Lincoln, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

Of the five known handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address, the Library of Congress has two. President Lincoln gave one of these to each of his two private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The other three copies of the Address were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes well after November 19. The copy for Edward Everett is at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield; the Bancroft copy, requested by historian George Bancroft, is at Cornell University in New York; the Bliss copy was made for Colonel Alexander Bliss, Bancroft's stepson, and is now in the Lincoln Room of the White House.

first page of one original copy of the Gettysburg Address
first page of one original copy of the Gettysburg Address

SOURCES
The History Channel www.history.com/topics/gettysburg-address
How Stuff Works history.howstuffworks.com/historical-events/gettysburg-address.htm

SEE ALSO
Robert E. Lee
William H. Seward

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> United States: General History and Description >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Abraham Lincoln's Administration, 1861-1865

This page was last updated on October 23, 2017.