Just four and a half months after one of the bloodiest battles in American history at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the ground of the battlefield was being rededicated as the “Soldiers’ National Cemetery” at Gettysburg. President Lincoln was invited to attend and give a few words but he was not slated to give the “oration” on that day. Edward Everett was to deliver that honor and Lincoln was only to deliver a few remarks at the closing.
Lincoln’s speech, just two minutes long and less than 300 words long, which was unheard of at that time due to its brevity is widely recognized as one of the finest examples of our national purpose.
Lincoln’s speech which unlike the myth that it was hastily scribbled on an envelope, was carefully and painstakingly written to espouse our fundamental equality as he cited the Declaration of Independence, he characterized the Civil War as a struggle to preserve the Union with with “a new birth of freedom” that would bring true equality to all of its citizens.
The United States was involved in a very difficult and bloody Civil War in 1863 and the result still hung in the balance. Two big victories that summer began to finally swing the pendulum toward the Union. When Ulysses S. Grant took Vicksburg on the Mississippi River, which gave the Union total control of the Mississippi and effectively cut the Confederacy in two.
The second was in Gettysburg. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved north across the Potomac River and into Maryland with the hope of taking Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and possibly Philadelphia with the hope of capitalizing on the growing anti-war sentiment in the North and pave the way for a peaceful solution to the war.
For three days the armies slugged it out in the Pennsylvania countryside with the Union lines holding against determined assaults, despite heavy casualties on both sides.
On the third day, July 3rd, Lee made a final attempt to break the Union line in the center with a 12,500-man assault with the division of George Pickett. Known as Pickett’s charge, the Confederates were thrown back with terrible casualties. Lee’s forces began the long, slow retreat back to Virginia, never to attack the North again. In the area around Gettysburg, the two armies suffered over 50,000 casualties.
In October, the reburial of Union troops from the battlefield to what would become the cemetery began. David Wills, from the committee for the November 19 Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, invited President Lincoln to the dedication. “It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”
The program as it set out that day placed the President as basically an afterthought.
Music, by Birgfeld’s Band (“Homage d’uns Heros” by Adolph Birgfeld)
Prayer, by Reverend T. H. Stockton, D.D.
Music, by the Marine Band (“Old Hundred”), directed by Francis Scala
Oration, by Hon. Edward Everett (“The Battles of Gettysburg”)
Music, Hymn (“Consecration Chant”) by B. B. French, Esq., music by Wilson G Horner, sung by Baltimore Glee Club
Dedicatory Remarks, by the President of the United States
Dirge (“Oh! It is Great for Our Country to Die”, words by James G. Percival, music by Alfred Delaney), sung by Choir selected for the occasion
Benediction, by Reverend H. L. Baugher, D.D
As was customary in the day, the oration by Everett took two hours, he finished his speech with the following:
But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.
Different Versions of the Address: There are five different versions of Lincoln’s address. While they are all very similar, it shows Lincoln was still trying to perfect it as time went on. The version we’re using here is called the Bliss version. Lincoln was asked for a copy in his handwriting to use as a fundraiser for soldiers. This is the only version that he actually signed.
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.
November 19, 1863
Reactions Vary Widely: We like to lament today that the news is so biased one way or another, that one has to take everything with a grain of salt. Things were very similar in the 1860s. Depending upon one’s political slant, the reactions to Lincoln’s speech were carried in much the same way one would read a speech by the President today if you were watching say, MSNBC or Fox News.
The Chicago Times which was very Democratic and anti- Republican, observed, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
The Times of London, and it must be remembered, the British government was close to supporting the Confederacy, commented: “The ceremony [at Gettysburg] was rendered ludicrous by some of the luckless sallies of that poor President Lincoln.”
The Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican printed the entire speech, calling it “a perfect gem” that was “deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma”. The Republican successfully predicted that Lincoln’s remarks would “repay further study as the model speech”.
Lincoln, himself, always self-effacing got a letter from Everett who wrote the President the day after the ceremony stating, “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.”Lincoln answered Everett in typical low-key humor that he was glad to know the speech was not a “total failure”.
The New York Times said that Lincoln’s address was followed by long continuous applause.
Many of Lincoln’s words that day still ring in American’s ears today as iconic moments in our history. “Four score and seven years ago” in regard to the Declaration of Independence and “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth,” was a message to the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice and to the nation that our unique American representative democracy would survive.