In late November 1863, President Lincoln gave perhaps one of the most important speeches in American history. On the 19th of November that year, the government was dedicating the National Cemetery at Gettysburg Pennsylvania where the bloodiest battle of the Civil War had been fought just a few months before.

Between North and South, there had approximately 51,000 casualties in just a three-day period between July 1-3, 1863. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was moving across Maryland and into Pennsylvania for his second (and last) invasion of the North. He had hoped to threaten Washington and get the Union government to agree to peace and allow the South (Confederate States of America) to be its own country. Lee had 75,000 men under his command.

Opposing him was George Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Meade had just taken command and was cautious as Lee had regularly whipped every Union commander that he did battle with. Meade had 104,000 troops at his disposal.

Part of Lee’s command, North Carolinians under General Johnston Pettigrew ventured into Gettysburg to hunt for supplies, mainly shoes, as much of Lee’s army was barefoot. Pettigrew’s troops met advanced cavalry of the Union commanded by John Buford. Pettigrew reported to his commander Harry Heth what he had seen. Against Lee’s orders of beginning a general engagement before the entire army could be brought to bear, Heth brought two brigades into Gettysburg the next morning and pushed the cavalry out of town. The battle was on.

The Union controlled the high ground outside of town, Lee’s forces crashed against them on their left flank at Little Round Top, the Devil’s Den and the Peach Orchard. While also Lee attacked the Union’s right at Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Both sides suffered heavy losses, but the Union’s lines held. On the third day, Lee concentrated his forces and tried to assault the middle of the Union line with George Pickett’s division.

Pickett’s Charge as it became known was thrown back with horrendous casualties as Union rifle and cannon fire decimated the Confederate troops charging across a mile of open ground while steadily advancing uphill. Lee’s army retreated back into Virginia.

Shortly after the battle, the dead which littered the battlefield were buried in hastily dug graves as was the custom. But the locals petitioned the government to mark the burial ground as a national cemetery. Originally, the date for the dedication was set to be October 23, but the featured speaker for the dedication Edward Everett said he needed more time to prepare so the event was moved back to mid-November. President Lincoln was not the featured speaker of the event, contrary to what many people believe. However, he was invited by the founders of the national cemetery movement led by local attorney David Wills to “formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”

Although the war was far from won as 1863 wore down, Lincoln was encouraged by the two huge victories won in the East at Gettysburg and in the West, where General Ulysses S. Grant had defeated the Confederates at Vicksburg, cutting the Confederacy in two and handing over control of the Mississippi River to the Union.