From July 1 through the 3rd, 1863, the largest battle in the history of the Western Hemisphere took place in southern Pennsylvania.
After the battle, tens of thousands of dead were laid to rest, and an official national cemetery was established to honor the war dead.
The cemetery was consecrated on November 19, 1963. During the ceremony, a short speech was given by the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. That short speech has become the most famous speech in American history.
Learn more about the Gettysburg Address on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Between the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century and the First World War in the early 20th century, the US Civil War was the largest conflict in the western world.
The largest and most significant battle during the Civil War was the Battle of Gettysburgh.
In 1863, after the successful battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederates hoped to attempt a second invasion of the north after their unsuccessful invasion the previous year.
That first incursion into Union territory resulted in the Battle of Antietam, which was one of the war’s bloodiest battles.
The goal of the 1863 incursion was to take pressure off of Virginia, disrupt the Union’s plans for the summer, and possibly cause enough chaos and misery to cause the political alliances in the North to shift away from the hawks who wanted to settle the war on the battlefield, to those who wanted a negotiated settlement.
The Confederates, under the leadership of General Robert E. Lee, moved from Virginia, through Maryland, into southern Pennsylvania. It was the furthest north that they would advance during the entirety of the war.
Under General George Meade’s command, the Union forces met the Confederates outside the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For three days, from July 1st to the 3rd, over 165,000 men fought what was to be the bloodiest battle of the war, with over 57,000 dead, wounded, or missing.
It was a resounding victory for the Union. It caused the Confederates to retreat back to Virginia, it ended any possibility of European countries recognizing the Confederacy, and while not the end of the war, it could be seen as the beginning of the end.
This episode is not about that battle, however.
When the battle was over and both sides left, the small town of Gettysburg was left with the clean-up. Thousands of bodies were strewn across the battlefield.
Most of the bodies were buried quickly in mass graves. Some were never buried at all and decomposed on the spot where they fell.
Eventually, the decision was made to create a proper cemetery for the war dead, and land was dedicated to create what was known as the Soldiers National Cemetery. The project was spearheaded by a local attorney by the name of David Wills.
Wills invited the president to attend in a letter that contained the following, “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.”
Basically, the President was mostly just there to attend and lend his authority to the proceedings and was not the main attraction.
In October, the process began of exhuming the bodies of the fallen and providing them a proper burial in a casket and with a headstone.
The decision was made to hold a consecration ceremony for the cemetery on November 19th, just four and a half months after the battle took place.
In addition to the governors of four states, the President of the United States would be in attendance, and the featured speaker would be the noted orator Edward Everett.
Today, Everett is a historical footnote due to his role at the Gettysburg cemetery consecration. However, he was a notable figure. He was a Governor of Massasschuttes, Ambassador to Great Britain, US Secretary of State, and the president of Harvard University.
On November 18th, Lincoln left Washington by train, accompanied by the Secretary of State William Seward, the Secretary of the Interior John Usher, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, in addition to his personal secretaries and several foreign dignitaries.
During the trip, Lincoln confessed to feeling weak and sick, which only worsened once he arrived in the town of Gettysburg.
According to legend, Lincoln wrote his speech on the train on the way to Gettysburg. Today, many historians think he probably wrote half of it in the White House before he left and half of it at in house of David Willis in Gettysburgh. Supposedly, he was putting the finishing touches on it at 9 am, just before the precession began.
The program for the event was as follows:
It was to be opened with a short musical performance by a local band.
Then there would be an opening prayer by Reverend T. H. Stockton, followed by the Marine Band performing the song “Old Hundred.”
Then Edward Everett would give his speech, which would be the day’s highlight.
Following that, the Baltimore Glee Club would perform the “Consecration Chant.” The President of the United States would give his short remarks, ending with the singing of “Oh! It is Great for Our Country to Die” sung by a local choir, followed by a benediction by Reverend H. L. Baugher.
The oration by Edward Everett lasted about two hours and the text of the speech, which he committed to memory, was 13,607 words long. To put that into perspective, the script for an episode of this podcast is usually around 2000 words long.
It was a detailed description of the battle which he created after talking to the men who took part.
Of course, no one remembers Everett’s speech. In fact, no one remembers any two-hour speech.
It was Lincoln’s short remarks which stole the show. In just 272 words and ten sentences, he encapsulated the entire reason why the war was being fought.
In a mere 2 minutes, he gave what is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of oratory in the English language.
The language and imagery he used have been studied for over 150 years and have been used and resued.
In 1931, a newspaper printed the recollection of a then 87-year-old woman by the name of Mrs. Sarah Cooke Myers. She was 19 years old when she attended the dedication in Gettysburg. She recalled that after the president spoke, there was no applause. The audience just stood in stunned silence as he sat back down. This is in direct contradiction to what newspapers like the New York Times reported the next day.
One of the reasons why the address became so popular was because of its brevity. Almost immediately after the ceremony, the speech’s text was sent out by telegraph. It was published the next day in papers around the county.
When Lincoln returned to Washington, he still felt ill, and it turned out he had a mild case of smallpox.
The day after his speech, Edward Everett sent the President a note which said, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
One of the things regarding the address that has been debated over the years is the exact text that Lincoln used.
Five different surviving manuscripts are written in the hand of Abraham Lincoln, and they all have slight variations.
Each manuscript is named after the person it was given to. Two of them were given to Lincoln’s secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. Both of these were written at or near the time the speech was given.
The other three copies were given to Edward Everett, the other speaker that day, the historian George Bancroft, and Colonel Alexander Bliss, who was Bancroft’s stepson.
The Bliss copy is the only copy that was dated and to which Lincoln affixed his signature, so it is the copy that is most often referenced. Today, it is hanging in the Lincoln Room of the White House.
The first two copies are owned by the National Archive, the Everett copy is in the hands of the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois, and the Bancroft Copy is in the Cornell University Library.
The Gettysburgh Address has had a lasting legacy in the United States. It has been a requirement for children to memorize all 272 words in civics classes.
The entirety of the text is etched in stone inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
The Gettysburg address is alluded to in the first lines of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
The current French constitution contains a translation of the phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Today, the Soldiers National Cemetery is known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and it is run by the National Park Service as Gettysburg National Military Park.
No one could have known seven score and 19 years ago that the “few appropriate remarks” given on that day by the President of the United States would be remembered long after the President was gone and the war was over.
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.