OTD in History… November 19, 1863, Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivers his Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony of the National Cemetery of Gettysburg; historians consider it one of the most significant speeches and one of the seminal moments in American history. Just months before the nation saw its bloodiest and deadliest battle at Gettysburg. The three-day battle from July 1 to July 3, 1863, left 23,000 casualties from the Union Army of the Potomac under General George G. Meade, and 28,000 Confederate casualties of soldiers from the Confederate Army under General Robert E. Lee. It was a colossal defeat for the Confederates with Lee retreating symbolically on Independence Day, July 4.
Afterward, the Gettysburg area was left with the daunting task of hastily burying the rotting dead. The shallow graves all over were not a solution, filled with bodies rising, and many family members digging up graves to find loved ones, the bodies were making life impossible for the Gettysburg farmers and residents. Gettysburg banker and attorney, David Wills decided there needed to be a permanent solution that would honor the dead and allow the local residents to return as much as possible with their lives. Andrew Curtin, the Republican governor of Pennsylvania appointed Wills to deal with the bodies, and Wills won the bid to rebury the dead in coffins on a 17-acre field that would be the cemetery.
Even before completing the daunting task of categorically identifying and reburying all the dead, Wills and the Gettysburg Cemetery Commission wanted to dedicate the new cemetery. He sought some of the best wordsmiths of the day, who turned him down. The main speech as was customary at the time would run over two-hours long. Eventually, Wills secured leading orator Edward Everett, the former president of Harvard College, former U.S. senator and former secretary of state. Although the dedication was originally set for October, it was pushed back because Everett needed more time. Almost at the last minute on November 2, Wills asked President Lincoln delivered some remarks, to “formally [to] set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”
Lincoln thought to use the opportunity to speak to the large crowd at the dedication to both unite rivaling factions of his party and the states under the Gettysburg victory. Over 15,000 people would be at the event as well as state governors; Lincoln realized the importance of his audience and wanted to be there no matter what. He altered he schedule to travel a day earlier setting out on November 18, to ensure he arrived in time. The trip took longer than expected the train ride lasted six hours.
Although the myth is that Lincoln wrote his speech entirely on the train ride to Gettysburg. The president took a little but not much longer to draft his speech. Lincoln was meticulous, thought out writer, and he would have never left it for the last minute. Most probably, Lincoln began his speech before he left the White House and continued it on the train, and revised it the evening before the dedication after discussions with Secretary of State William H. Seward on the journey to Gettysburg.
Historian Garry Wills recounts when Lincoln wrote the speech his article 2003 Atlantic article, “The Words That Remade America The significance of the Gettysburg Address.” According to Wills, “Better-attested reports have him considering them on the way to a photographer’s shop in Washington, writing them on a piece of cardboard as the train took him on the hundred-and-twenty-mile trip, penciling them in David Wills’s house on the night before the dedication, writing them in that house on the morning of the day he had to deliver them, and even composing them in his head as Everett spoke, before Lincoln rose to follow him.”
Lincoln’s short three-minute and 272-word address included elements that he used in previously speeches particularly his message to Congress in July 1861. Lincoln’s address included the themes of “birth, testing, and rebirth.” Lincoln looked back to the founding fathers and the birth of a nation, but instead, he quoted the Declaration of Independence, rather than the Constitution. By doing so, Lincoln claimed that it represented the ideals the Founding Fathers wanted for the nation. He declared the nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The constitution did not prohibit slavery, therefore, slaveholders looked to justify their actions with the Constitution, while the Declaration of Independence, countered slavery that everyone in the nation was equal. Lincoln’s words were a “radical” departure at the time but in keeping with his emancipation of the slaves earlier that year, and are the norm now. Lincoln looked to shape the real motivation behind the battle, “Lincoln’s historic address redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.” While Wills explains, “Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely.”
Lincoln’s speech had a selflessness message to it, that those at the dedication ceremony “can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground,” because those who died at Gettysburg and are buried there “have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” With the new path following the Declaration of Independence versus the Constitution on the issue of equality, Lincoln aimed to unite the country as a new nation after the war. Lincoln expressed in “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.”
Historian Garry Wills expressed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, “It would have been hard to predict that Gettysburg, out of all this muddle, these missed chances, all the senseless deaths, would become a symbol of national purpose, pride, and ideals. Abraham Lincoln transformed the ugly reality into something rich and strange — and he did it with 272 words. The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration.”
“Fourscore 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate — we cannot 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 here 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.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (Simon & Schuster Lincoln Library). New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 2012.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.