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The opening lines of President Abraham’s Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (speech): “Four score and seven years ago (one score is twenty years, so 87 years ago) our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…” are well known to most Americans.  While the words of the speech are well-known, the speech itself is significant because it gave the American people a deeper understanding of why the U.S. Civil War was so important to the fate of the nation.

Events Leading up to the Gettysburg Address

For a number of years in the mid-19th century (1800’s) there had been an ongoing dispute between the southern states and the northern states over the issue of slavery. The southern states, where slavery was legal, held that owning slaves should remain legal, while the northern states believed that slave ownership was a violation of the slave’s basic human rights, and should be abolished.

As early as 1858, the southern states had begun to discuss secession (separation) from the north should the north pursue its effort to end slavery. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the south moved in earnest to secede from the Union.  Lincoln was a member of the Republican Party, which was seen as the anti-slavery party, and many in the south saw this as a message that those in the north were becoming more serious about ending slavery.

The first state to secede from the union was South Carolina in late 1860, but by the time Lincoln was inaugurated in March of 1861, seven states had followed South Carolina’s lead and joined the Confederacy of the south. A Confederate government was soon formed and the Confederacy took control of federal Army bases throughout the south. The Union government took this as an act of war, and by spring of 1861, the Union was at war with the Confederacy.

A little girl standing among the tombstones at the Gettysburg National Cemetery

The U.S. Civil War soon became the bloodiest battle in American history. In July of 1863, there were 170,000 troops all told at the Battle of Gettysburg. Of these, approximately 28,000 Confederate troops lost their lives while around 23,000 Union troops perished. Many of the dead were buried where they lay on the battlefield, which prompted a move to create a National Cemetery, a single location where those who died in war could be remembered. In October of 1863, the National Cemetery at Gettysburg was founded.

Preparations for the Gettysburg Address

The dedication for the National Cemetery was set for November 19, 1863. The featured speaker was set to be Edward Everett, who was a former President of Harvard College and a noted orator (speech giver). President Lincoln was invited to speak on November 2nd, just a few weeks before the opening ceremony. Lincoln, who often refused to give speeches, made an exception for Gettysburg. The president saw his speech at Gettysburg as a chance to explain to the American people why the Civil War was significant, and he carefully prepared his speech.

Lincoln’s staff had originally planned for the president to leave by train on the morning of the speech. However, Lincoln, who knew that traveling during wartime could cause delays and that those delays could in turn cause him to miss the speech, requested that they leave the day before.  Indeed, the trip ended up taking twelve hours and if they had left the morning of the speech, Lincoln never would have made it to Gettysburg in time. While legend has it that Lincoln wrote the speech on a napkin by train, the truth is that he wrote much of the speech before leaving, and only wrote pieces of it while on the train.

On the morning of the 19th, Everett gave a two hour speech recounting the Battle of Gettysburg and its significance while an orchestra played music written just for the occasion.  The length of Everett’s speech was not unusual for this time, and those who were standing near enough to hear Everett speak said that he gave a moving speech. At noon, Everett gave the stand to President Lincoln, who stood before the crowd of 15,000 to give his own short speech.

Spectators walk around the monument erected at the place where Lincoln gave the address.

Lincoln began his speech by recalling the founding of the nation, and of the ideas expressed by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence. He then went on to declare that the Civil War was a test of whether the nation would survive or if it would “perish from the earth.” The President concluded that it was up to them, the living, to confront “the great task” before them and ensure that the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” All told, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was just 272 words long, and took 2-3 minutes. And yet, in that short time, Lincoln had made clear why the war was important and how it would define the nation.

Reaction to the Gettysburg Address

The speech was reprinted in its entirety in newspapers across the country, while reaction to the speech was split along political lines. Republican journalists viewed the speech as heartfelt and to the point, while Democratic journalists saw the speech as inadequate for the occasion. In the years to come, most would recognize the Gettysburg Address as defining the importance of the Civil War. Edward Everett wrote to Lincoln after the speech, saying “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.” After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Senator Charles Sumner wrote “that speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg…and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act.”

Gettysburg Address Fun Facts

  • Only the Union dead were given proper burial at Gettysburg
  • Lincoln fell ill with a serious fever for two months upon returning home
  • Lincoln’s son had become ill the night before Lincoln was supposed to leave, and his wife Mary begged Lincoln not to go
  • Both the Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Vicksburg ended in the Union’s favor on July 4th, 1863. Lincoln believed this was important since it was the anniversary of the found ing of the U.S.
  • There are no photographs of Lincoln giving the address. Photographers assumed that he would speak for at least ten minutes, and because photographs of the day required time for the exposure to be complete, the photographers did not have the opportunity to capture the moment.


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