On November 19th, 1863, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, at the dedication of a military cemetery, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a powerful and brilliant address. It is one of the most important speeches ever given.
Standing on a field that was once soaked in blood, smoke clouding the air, and the reality of a perilous war becoming more clear — President Lincoln spoke to a weary public.
Using the site of the deadliest battle of the war as his backdrop, Lincoln reminded the public that the Union, quite literally, must solider on to win the Civil War.
Over the course of three days, the battle at Gettysburg would claim the lives of more than 45,000 men. It would also prove to be a turning point for the Union as Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces were forced to retreat. This would be the last Confederate advancement into the North.
Andrew Curtin, then Governor of Pennsylvania, charged David Willis, a private citizen, to care for the cemetery. He purchased 17 acres of pasture that would serve as the final resting place for more than 7,500 men.
Willis invited Edward Everett, a noted orator of the day, to deliver the keynote address. Interestingly enough, Lincoln was only notified of the ceremony two weeks before it happened. He was asked to deliver a few brief remarks.
The crowd listened to Everett speak for nearly two hours before Lincoln would take the podium. Lincoln’s speech was 272 words. It lasted only a few minutes.
In that time, he reminded us that the war was not only a struggle to save the Union. But, rather, it was a larger fight to preserve freedom and equality for all.
Lincoln’s stirring conclusion, an excerpt I believe we all know, was this: “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, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
Lincoln’s address initially received a mixed reception. It was, of course, strictly divided between partisan lines. Today, it is considered to be the most articulate representation of American democracy ever authored.