This 20th-century print depicts President Lincoln delivering the famous Gettysburg Address at the Soldier’s National Cemetary on November 19, 1863. We want to honor this historical address as part of the upcoming 158th Observance of the Gettysburg Address with a short overview of the history surrounding it and why Gettysburg is such a special place to visit.
Burying the fallen soldiers in Gettysburg
From July 1 to July 3, 1863, the invading forces of General Lee’s Confederate Army clashed with the Army of the Potomac under General Meade in Gettysburg. Casualties were high on both sides: Out of roughly 170,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, there were 23,000 Union casualties and 28,000 Confederates killed, wounded, or missing.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, soldiers from both sides were quickly buried, many in poorly marked graves. In the months that followed, a local attorney, David Wills, spearheaded efforts to create a national cemetery at Gettysburg where the fallen Union soldiers would be buried. Wills with the Gettysburg Cemetery Commission chose Edward Everett, the former president of Harvard College, former U.S. Senator, and former Secretary of State, to be the main speaker for the dedication. Just weeks before the event, Wills extended an invitation to President Lincoln, asking him “formally [to] set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”
When he received the invitation to make the remarks at Gettysburg, Lincoln saw an opportunity to make a broad statement to the American people on the enormous significance of the war, and he prepared carefully. Though long-running popular legend holds that he wrote the speech on the train while traveling to Pennsylvania, he probably wrote about half of it before leaving the White House on November 18. He completed writing and revising it that night after talking with Secretary of State William Seward, who had accompanied him to Gettysburg. There is also a local legend that President Lincoln practiced his speech several times in public before the official dedication.
Lincoln was feeling ill when he delivered the Gettysburg Address; doctors later diagnosed him with a mild case of smallpox. It makes the speech all the more impressive to know that Lincoln rode to Gettysburg to deliver it even when feeling quite ill with smallpox.
The historic Gettysburg Address
On the morning of November 19, Everett delivered his two-hour oration, from memory no less, on the Battle of Gettysburg and its significance. Afterward, the orchestra played a hymn composed for the occasion by B.B. French. Lincoln then rose to the podium and addressed the crowd of some 15,000 people. He spoke for less than two minutes, and the entire speech was fewer than 275 words and only nine sentences long. Three-quarters of the words are only one syllable, and 92% have no more than two syllables. Beginning by invoking the image of the founding fathers and the new nation, Lincoln eloquently expressed his conviction that the devastating Civil War was the ultimate test of whether the Union created in 1776 would survive or whether it would “perish from the earth.” The dead at Gettysburg had laid down their lives for this noble cause, he said, and it was up to the living to confront the “great task” before them: ensuring that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Edward Everett, later wrote to Lincoln, “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.”
The historic Gettysburg Address
The full text of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is as follows:
“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.”
Public reaction and legacy
On the day following the dedication ceremony, newspapers all over the country reprinted Lincoln’s speech along with Everett’s. Opinion was generally divided along political lines, with Republican journalists praising the speech as a heartfelt, classic piece of oratory and Democratic ones deriding it as inadequate and inappropriate for the momentous occasion.
In the years to come, the Gettysburg Address would endure as arguably the most-quoted, most-memorized piece of oratory in American history. After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Senator Charles Sumner wrote of the address, “That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg…and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. 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.”
(Information above was mainly collected from the History.com website.)
What happened to the fallen Confederate soldiers?
President Lincoln delivered his famous speech on November 19th, 1863, 4 months after the battle, to help dedicate the Soldier’s National Cemetery for Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg. At that time the plans did not recognize Confederate soldiers.
Prior to the speech and about two months after the battle, plans were initiated for a Federal Cemetery at Gettysburg. The bodies of Union soldiers were disinterred from their temporary graves to a place more fitting. However, the men wearing butternut and gray would wait almost nine years for the same respect, beginning with the Wake County Ladies Memorial Association. This was not an easy task, given the quick burials that were performed, the loss of grave markers, the poor condition of battlefield graves, and the condition of the remains. The National Park Service says a Virginia-born physician who lived in Gettysburg at the time of the fighting, Dr. J.W.C. O’Neal, kept a journal of identified Confederate burials and knew the locations of individual sites and mass graves. It’s not clear why, but most likely because he treated and probably helped bury the dead. With his help, crews would return the remains of 3,320 soldiers, most of which were sent to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. Remains were delivered to cemeteries in Raleigh, Savannah, and Charleston for burial in town cemeteries.
When is the Dedication Day 2021 at Gettysburg National Cemetery?
The 158th Anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will be observed in Gettysburg National Cemetery on Friday, November 19, 2021. Final details are to be determined. When held in person, the event typically features a live performance of the Gettysburg Address by an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in full period attire as well as a keynote speaker.
Our friends at Gettysburg Tours, offer many different tour options for you to learn more about the battle and Gettysburg’s history.
Come stay with us
At the Keystone Inn, we have a fun tagline of – “Come for the history and stay for our hospitality and Farm to Table Breakfasts”. We deeply care about your comfort while staying with us, and our Keystone Innkeeper and team are always available to discuss your plans during your stay. Check out your room choices here and book your stay today as the upcoming months are the busiest season in Gettysburg.