The Gettysburg Address was a speech made by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War and delivered at the official dedication ceremony for the National Cemetery of Gettysburg held in Pennsylvania.
When was the Gettysburg Address?
The address was made on November 19, 1863. It took place at one of the engagement sites over four months after the Battle of Gettysburg. The Gettysburg Address was one of the most famous speeches delivered in the history of America. Lasting just 275 words, President Lincoln began his oration with the famous words, “Four score and seven years ago.”
While the President wasn’t the main speaker that day and such an impactful speech wasn’t expected to be made by him, he nonetheless delivered an address for the ages. Within this famous speech, Lincoln spoke in support of the equality of rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence while tying the events of the American Civil War to his hope of a “new birth of freedom.”
Background to the Address
For the first three days of July in 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. General Robert E Lee’s Confederate Army set out to attack the Union Army of the Potomac, led by General George G. Meade. About 35 miles away from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the battle went underway in Gettysburg.
Many brave men from both sides died during the battle. Out of 170,000 troops in total, 23,000 deaths from the Union Army were recorded. 28,000 Confederate soldiers died, were injured, or went missing. On July 4, 1863, Lee led retreated by way of Virginia, having been soundly defeated. The following month, Lee offered to resign his position, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis rejected his offer.
Following common practice, it wasn’t long before the soldiers who died at the Battle of Gettysburg were buried, being placed in poorly marked graves. Afterward, local attorney David Wills proposed having a national cemetery established at the Gettysburg battlefield. With Wills and the Gettysburg Cemetery working together to affect the plan, preparations were implemented.
While the original date for the opening of the cemetery was meant to take place on October 23, 1863, it had to be postponed to November instead. Edward Everett, former Harvard College President and United States senator, was set to be the orator of the commemoration but asked for a grace period for time to prepare. David Wills reached out to President Lincoln on November 2nd to ask him to also speak at the ceremony.
Lincoln’s Preparation for His Oration
President Abraham Lincoln wasn’t pleased with the fact that Meade didn’t follow the Confederates as they surrendered from the battle and made their way back to Virginia. However, he did have high hopes as the year 1863 was coming to an end and thought it was fitting that a Union victory took place in Vicksburg on the same day of Lee’s retreat, July 4, 1863. It was an important day in American history, given its association with the Declaration of Independence.
After being asked to speak at the ceremony for the National Cemetery of Gettysburg, President Lincoln took it as his chance to address the audience about the importance of the Civil War. For quite some time, it has been rumored that Lincoln wrote his whole speech while he made the train journey to the ceremony.
However, other sources state that he had written all of it the day prior as he waited to depart on his journey. Half was said to have been written while he was still in the White House, and the other half that evening after he had met with William H. Steward, the Secretary of the State.
The Gettysburg Address
Everett made his main speech on November 19, 1863, at the ceremony for the National Cemetery of Gettysburg. Everett spoke about the Battle of Gettysburg and its importance, while the orchestra followed with a piece created by the famous composer B. B. Lincoln.
After his two-hour memorized speech, it was Lincoln’s turn to stand. His address only lasted a few minutes and was made in front of a crowd of 15,000. There were only 275 words in total in Lincoln’s oration. Alluding to the Founding Fathers of the nation, Lincoln spoke about the significance of the Civil War. He emphasized the part in which it played as to whether the Union was to stand or “perish from the earth,” as he put it.
In his speech, he honored the soldiers who gave up their lives to fight for the Union, built in 1776, and noted how it was at the hands of those who lived to pursue their cause. “The government of the people, for the people, and by the people, shall not perish from the earth,” he said.
It wasn’t that the information, nor the language that Abraham Lincoln delivered, was new in any sense. Just a few years previously, in 1861, the President, in addressing Congress, called the relatively new nation of the United States a democracy and a government “by the people, to the people.”
But it appears that it was the authority with which Lincoln spoke in the Gettysburg Address and the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence laid out by the Founding Fathers that struck home for the people. Lincoln’s speech is said to have provided an understanding of the true significance and meaning of the American Civil War.
Authenticity of the Speech
Although Lincoln’s speech was one of the most famous and impactful in the history of the United States, the exact words he used are not definitively known. Many scholars are at odds, and modern manuscripts that have been transcribed into newspapers, along with handwritten copies, make it difficult to tell. Even written copies made by Lincoln have different wording, grammar, and punctuation. Therefore, it would appear that scholars have to work with a combination of all the available sources to deliver the most accurate account of the speech.