In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln accepted an invitation to speak at the dedication ceremony for the new cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the Union Army dead from the battle there in July were in the process of being reinterred after they were removed from graves in the field. The keynote speaker for the November 19th event was Edward Everett, a distinguished former government official, U.S. Senator, and Harvard College president who was one of the great speakers of the day, but Lincoln was invited to say “a few appropriate remarks” and as president, formally dedicate the site. The President accepted the invitation.
Lincoln began to write his speech as soon as he accepted the invitation, but hadn’t finished it by the time he left Washington on a special train on November 18th, arriving in Gettysburg around 5:00 p.m. Lincoln stayed overnight in the home of David Wills, a local lawyer and prominent citizen who played a major role in the establishment of the new national cemetery. That evening, the President finished writing his speech.
At 10:00 a.m. on November 19th, the cemetery dedication program began with a procession to the cemetery which was accompanied by music from military bands. The President rode a horse in the procession. People from all over the north had come to Gettysburg, with perhaps 12,000 on hand for the dedication.
Everett addressed the crowd for approximately two hours; while a speech of that length is virtually unheard of today, it was not unusual for the great orators of that time to deliver speeches of several thousand words. Everett’s speech was about 13,000 words long, and incredibly, he had memorized it and spoke without notes.
In contrast, Lincoln’s speech was a little over two minutes. Here’s the text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
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.
The speech was just 272 words long, but Lincoln said a lot in those few words. Essentially, he gave meaning to the war and the sacrifices made on the battlefield, and urged the nation to finish the task at hand so the nation and it’s ideals would endure. One thing Lincoln spoke of in the address turned out to be wrong. He said “the world will little note nor long remember what we say here”, but a century and a half later, his words have endured and are as much a part of the story of Gettysburg in the Civil War as the battle itself.
by David Herbert Donald
Never Call Retreat by Bruce Catton