November 19 marks the 155th anniversary of one of the most famous speeches in American history: the Gettysburg Address. If you’ve ever visited the Lincoln Memorial, you’ve seen it etched in the white marble. In just 272 words, President Lincoln encapsulated not only the reasons for the struggles of the Civil War but also the meaning of our nation itself.
The carnage and devastation of the three-day clash between Union and Confederate forces was staggering. Before the July 1863 battle, the population of the town of Gettysburg was around 2,400 people. Afterwards, Gettysburg was left to care for 14,000 wounded Union troops, 8,000 Confederate prisoners, and thousands of dead (plus 3,000 dead horses).
At the time, Lincoln’s remarks were overshadowed by noted orator Edward Everett, who gave a two hour address ahead of the President as part of the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery where over 3,500 Union soldiers and over 6,000 bodies total are buried.
Prior to sharing the podium with the President, Mr. Everett had written about Lincoln in his diary: “He is evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.” Criticism of Abraham Lincoln by his contemporaries was not uncommon.
Because his speech lasted just two minutes, the audience was silent afterwards. Today, we don’t know why: were they in awe or did they not know he had finished? Either way, the Address was not seen as being very significant until years afterward.
The day after that dedication ceremony, both Lincoln’s remarks and Everett’s speech were reprinted. The Patriot & Union (today’s Patriot-News) described Lincoln’s Address as: “the silly remarks of the President” adding, “for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” One hundred and fifty years later, the Patriot-News retracted that criticism.
Today, the Gettysburg Address is often remembered and sometimes quoted:
“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.”
Thank you President Lincoln.