November 19, 1863 – President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address during the ceremony dedicating the National Cemetery at the Gettysburg Battlefield.
The spring and early summer of 1863 marked the high point of the Confederacy. Not only had the Civil War dragged on for two years, aiding the Southern strategy of wearing the North down until it simply gave up and let the South go, but in the previous six months the Confederate army had won two major victories against a much larger Union army at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
These stunning victories – particularly the one at Chancellorsville in May of 1863 – gave Confederate General Robert E. Lee the confidence to bring the war to the North. Lee’s previous invasion of the North in September of 1862 had resulted in defeat at Antietam, and Lee wanted another chance to prove that he could win an offensive war on Northern soil, instead of simply waiting back and defending against Union attacks in the South.
By marching North, Lee’s armies could feed off the bounty of Northern farms for a change, disrupt railroad traffic, and hopefully panic Northerners enough to press the U.S. government to seek a peace deal with the South. Lee and the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, also hoped that the move would convince France and England to formally recognize the Confederacy and provide aid.
In early June of 1863, Lee’s 70,000 man army began to head North from Virginia into Maryland and then southern Pennsylvania. His army moved slowly and deliberately, seizing supplies (including at least 40 African-Americans, most of whom were free, and sending them south to be sold into slavery) but avoiding any major fights with the Union army, which was set out to locate and engage Lee. Finally, in early July, in the small Pennsylvania hamlet of Gettysburg, Union General George Meade and his 100,000 man army caught up to Lee, and the battle was engaged.
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought over a three day period, from July 2 until July 4, with each day’s battle becoming progressively desperate and bloody. When the Confederate’s ill-fated assault known as Pickett’s Charge ended on July 4th, Lee was left with no choice but to retreat in a long, slow march back to Virginia. The North had won a great victory, but the cost was absolutely staggering: total casualties topped 50,000, with at least 8,000 of those killed in action (and thousands more would later die from their wounds).
With the battle over, something had to be done with the thousands upon thousands of corpses that littered the battlefield; in the summer heat, they needed to be interred quickly before they bloated and literally exploded (an additional 3,000 dead horses needed to be quickly disposed of as well). The dead were buried in local graveyards, on the spots where they fell, outside of the field hospitals where they died of their wounds, or in some places decomposed where they lay unburied.
Soon thereafter a local lawyer, David Wills, proposed buying a portion of the battlefield and creating a proper cemetery for the fallen. He received funding from the state of Pennsylvania and purchased a 17 acre plot which included the location of Pickett’s Charge. In October the process of digging up fallen soldiers from their temporary graves and re-interring them in the new cemetery began; in the end, nearly 3,500 Union dead were transferred to the Gettysburg Cemetery (Confederate dead were not included).
A dedication ceremony was planned for the Cemetery on November 19, 1863. The main speaker at the ceremony was to be Edward Everett, the former Governor of Massachusetts, former Secretary of State and renowned public speaker. President Lincoln, who at that point was politically unpopular due to the length of the war and the growing pile of casualties, was not originally scheduled to be invited. At the last minute, however, Wills invited Lincoln to make “a few appropriate remarks” – after Everett’s speech – at the ceremony.
Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg on the evening of November 18. The next morning he was still working on his speech up until it was time to join the procession heading to the dedication ceremony. Following an opening prayer and music by the Marine Band, Everett rose to speak. He delivered a two hour, 13,000 word speech covering the battle, the war up to that point, other battles, other wars, and politics. Following another hymn, Lincoln’s turn came.
Compared to Everett, Lincoln’s speech was over in the blink of an eye. He spoke for only two minutes; his “appropriate remarks” contained only 10 sentences. Yet it is considered today one of the most poignant and precise defenses of democracy ever given by an American President (interestingly, his exact words are unknown: no copy exists of his original test, and the five surviving transcripts of his speech, scribbled down by reporters at the ceremony all have minor differences from each other).
Lincoln began by noting the democratic foundation upon which the country was founded while acknowledging that the War was challenging the very existence of such a nation.
“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.”
He then observed that those in attendance at the dedication ceremony, while properly paying respect to the fallen, could not dedicate that cemetery, as the soldiers who fought there had already done that with their blood.
“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.”
Lincoln then finished with an exhortation to the audience to continue the fight for which those brave soldiers gave their lives and preserve the nation with its ideal of liberty for all, a “new birth of freedom” that included an end to slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation having taken effect in January of 1863).
“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 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.”
Lincoln’s speech, like most political speeches, met with mixed success. Republican newspapers which printed the speech praised it; Democratic newspapers panned it, as did the Times of London. At least Everett was impressed, telling Lincoln the next day that “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes,” to which Lincoln, with typical self-effacing humility replied, that he was glad it had not been “a total failure.”
Over time, however, and certainly after Lincoln’s death, the speech grew in importance until it became revered and oft copied (MLK, Jr., for instance, referenced it in his “Uncashed Check” (“I Have a Dream”) speech, beginning with the line, “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”). Today it is accepted as one of the seminal political speeches in American history.