The largest and most horrific battle in the history of North America took place over the first three days of July, 1863 near the tiny hamlet of Gettysburg in southeastern Pennsylvania not far from the Maryland border. More than 10,000 American troops were killed in the battle and another 30,000 were wounded.
On November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to take part in the ceremony dedicating the new Soldiers National Cemetery. A famous orator named Edward Everett gave the official Address that day and he spoke for more than two hours. And then Lincoln delivered his speech — all ten sentences, 271 (or maybe 271) words — in less than five minutes:
Four score 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 can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not 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 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.
On November 26, 1863, exactly seven days after Lincoln delivered his address, the people of the states loyal to the Union observed a Day of Thanksgiving, following Lincoln’s October 3, 1863 proclamation (see my previous post).
There are five versions of the Address, each in Lincoln’s handwriting. The first, known as the Nicolay copy is considered a first draft. A second copy, known as the Hay copy, contains corrections, omisions and additons in Lincoln’s hand and is probably the document Lincoln used. The words “under God” do not apear in either of these two copies. A third copy, known as the Everett copy was sent to Edward Everett in early 1864. Everett was collecting speeches given that day for a bound volume. It is presently held in the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield, Illinois.
In February 1864 the historian George Bancroft asked Lincoln for a copy to be included in a volume of national documents. This copy was written by Lincoln on both sides of one sheet of paper and was deemed unusable for the publishing. Lincoln gave this copy to Bancroft. It is now held at Cornell University. Lincoln then wrote out the speech again on three sheets of paper. This copy, known as the Bliss copy, is on display in the Lincoln Room of the White House.
Lincoln continued to improve his speech in the Bancroft and Bliss copies. The text above is from the Bliss copy.
Newspapers such as the Chicago Times who favored the Democratic Party ridiculed Lincoln’s speech. So did the London Times. The New York Times favored the Republican Party in those days. They were complimentary to Lincoln and published his speech on their front page on November 20, 1863.
Most historians consider the Battle of Gettysburg as the turning point of the war and by the Fall of 1864 after Sherman captured Atlanta and marched across Georgia to Savannah it was widely felt that the war would soon be over and the Union would be victorious. Lincoln won his re-election in November 1864 by a landslide (212 electoral votes to 21 for his opponent, General George B McClellan). He was assasinated on April 14, 1865 and died the next day.
On June 29, 1963 President John Kennedy stated “Five score years ago the ground on which we here stand shuddered under the clash of arms and was consecrated for all time by the blood of American manhood. Abraham Lincoln, in dedicating this great battlefield, has expressed, in words too eloquent for paraphrase or summary, why this sacrifice was necessary.”
On November 19, 1963, four and a half months after Kennedy’s statement, we celebrated the centennial of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Kennedy was assasinated three days later.