On This Day

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Library of Congress
President Lincoln, hatless, is pictured in the center of the platform moments after delivering the Gettysburg Address. It is the only known photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg.

On This Day: President Lincoln Delivers Gettysburg Address

November 19, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, a speech that redefined the meaning of the Civil War.

“Four Score and Seven Years Ago”

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In early July 1863, the Union Army defeated the Confederate Army on the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pa., in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

The townspeople of Gettysburg took in wounded soldiers, cleaned the battlefield, and set out to create a large cemetery for the deceased soldiers. Local lawyer David Wills organized the cemetery’s opening ceremony and invited President Lincoln to give a “few appropriate remarks” after the keynote address by famed orator Edward Everett.

“It will kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of these brave dead,” wrote Wills, “who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.”

A large crowd gathered at Gettysburg’s Cemetery Hill on Nov. 19 to see the ceremony. Everett spoke for two hours before Lincoln’s remarks, which lasted just a few minutes.

Lincoln reflected on the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality central to the founding of the country. “Rather than focus on the specific battle in his remarks, he wanted to present a broad statement about the larger significance of the war,” according to the National Archives Web site Our Documents.

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,” he declared, “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.”

Initial Reactions to the Address

The initial reception for the Gettysburg Address was somewhat mixed. The Chicago Times was highly critical of it, writing, “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.”

The Providence Journal was one of many newspapers that praised the speech. “Could the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those thrilling words of the President?” it asked. “They have in our humble judgment the charm and power of the very highest eloquence.”

Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, was prescient in his opinion of the speech. “That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg … and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act,” he remarked. “In the modesty of his nature he said ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech. Ideas are always more than battles.”

The Meaning of the Gettysburg Address

In the few words of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln redefined for the North—and eventually for all Americans—the meaning and value of the continuing struggle for a unified nation,” says the Gettysburg Foundation. “It was what many consider the best summation in the nation’s history of the meaning and price of freedom.”

Historian Joshua Zeitz writes in American Heritage that, at the time, the Address was a radical speech because it celebrated the American Revolution’s ideals of equality over the compromises of the Constitution, which had cemented the subjugation of blacks in law.

“Invoking the memory of the fallen Union soldiers, he called on Americans to ‘highly resolve that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’ He called, in other words, for a return to the principles of 1776,” writes Zeitz. “After this, it was clear that the Constitution would have to fall in line with the Declaration of Independence. Which is exactly what happened over the next seven years, with passage and ratification of the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments.”

Background: The Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War

The Battle of Gettysburg is considered a turning point of the American Civil War. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, had won several important battles in Virginia in 1862 and 1863. Lee decided to push his army into Northern territory, which would put pressure on Lincoln to end the war.

On July 1, 1863, Lee’s army met the Union’s Army of the Potomac, under the command of Maj. Gen. George Meade, in Gettysburg, Pa. After two days of intense fighting, Lee called for a charge of over 12,000 men into the heart of the Union army. “Pickett’s Charge,” named after Maj. Gen. George Pickett, ended in disaster and proved to be the decisive factor in the North’s victory.

There were more than 51,000 casualties in the three-day battle, more than any other battle in the war. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the North had 3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 captured, while the South had 3,903 were killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing or captured. The ravaged Confederate army retreated south the following day and would never again make significant advances into the North.
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