Civil War 150: The Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, 15,000 people stood in the brisk autumn air in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to partake in the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Four months earlier, the ground had been littered with bodies and remnants of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. A dedication ceremony honoring those who had died was planned on the battlefield.

At the time, The New York Times reported that notable politicians such as the following would be in attendance: governors from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New York and New Jersey; the current, former and governor-elect from Ohio; four Major Generals; and President Abraham Lincoln and members of his cabinet.

A military procession led the crowds through town into the cemetery while a brass band played a funeral dirge to honor the fallen. Perhaps surprisingly, the main speaker at the event was not to be Abraham Lincoln, but Edward Everett, a well-known educator and politician who had run for Vice President against Lincoln and his party in 1860.

President Lincoln was asked to attend and give some short remarks on the event. After a prayer and a small musical interlude, Everett gave a detailed speech about the Battle of Gettysburg. Everett spoke for more than two hours, reciting facts collected from people who had fought at the battle. Next, Lincoln rose and began his speech:

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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot 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.

During Lincoln’s speech, short applause halted the president about five times, followed by a courteous applause at the end. Lincoln is remembered to have commented how his remarks were ordinary and a flat-out failure. Most newspapers did little more than print his speech. However, there were some who saw the address as history would eventually see it—as a gleaming oratorical masterpiece.

The Gettysburg Address has been mirrored and quoted time and time again by students, historians, politicians and many others. It is easily the most well-known speech in American history, with its words carved forever on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his I Have a Dream speech, alluded to Lincoln’s famous opening by stating, “Five score years ago….” While, in the moment, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was casually received, it’s popularity and importance has grown. It is seen today as one of the greatest speeches ever given in American history, and helped to establish Lincoln as an iconic orator. As Secretary Seward said after the speech had concluded, “No one but Abraham Lincoln could have made that Address.”

Text for the Gettysburg Address was taken from the wall of the Lincoln Memorial.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University. She is former Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.