At the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate dead, wounded, and missing numbered 28,000 with 23,000 for the Union. Following the battle that created more casualties than any other in American history, plans began for the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg.
Despite the later fame of his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln was not the first person asked to speak at the dedication. In addition to former U.S. Senator Edward Everett, several famous poets were invited, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poets declined, so an invitation was sent to the President of the United States. Still, Lincoln only needed to say “a few appropriate remarks” after Everett’s speech was over.
Lincoln didn’t mind keeping his speech short, but he took the task of speaking about the war in person seriously. Despite popular myth, the address was not written hastily on a train while Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg. Though he likely was still editing the speech in his mind, Lincoln’s secretary insisted that the train ride was too bumpy for Lincoln to write on it. Instead, Lincoln revised his well-thought out remarks at the home of his host in town.
On the morning of November 19, 1863, Everett and Lincoln were seated in front of a large crowd that had gathered for the dedication. Everett’s speech lasted two hours, so a rather tired audience prepared itself for a long oration from the President. Instead, they heard a two-minute speech that would be remembered nearly 150 years later.
In the address, Lincoln first asked the audience to recall the founding ideals of the nation, that all men are created equal. He viewed The Civil War as a test of those ideals: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether…any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Lincoln then gave credit to what the soldiers had done for their country in the recent past, saying, “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.”
The end of the address looked to the future and pointed out the responsibility of those who were still living: “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.” The new nation, Lincoln hoped, would result in a reunion of the states and the end of slavery.
Though the Gettysburg Address was not immediately popular, some discerning listeners recognized its significance. The next day Edward Everett wrote to Lincoln, “I should be glad…that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
For the full text of the Gettysburg Address see http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/gettyb.asp
Image: Gettysburg Address at Lincoln Memorial