The Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1 – 3 July 1863, was the biggest battle of the American Civil War, in American history, and indeed in the western hemisphere. At the end of it, Union forces, led by General George Meade, emerged victorious but in doing so paid a heavy price – 23,000 men killed or wounded, while the forces of the Confederacy, led by General Robert E Lee, had lost over 28,000 men, killed or wounded, and were forced into retreat. Most of the dead lay in shallow graves; many not buried at all.
‘A few appropriate remarks’
Shortly after the battle, seventeen acres of land were purchased to establish the Soldiers’ National Cemetery of Gettysburg where the Union dead were moved from their shallow graves to more honorable places of rest. The mammoth task of reinterment was only half done when, four and a half months after the battle, the new cemetery was dedicated on Thursday, 19 November 1863. The principle speech, lasting over two hours, was delivered by the former US secretary of state, Edward Everett. Following Everett, came the President, Abraham Lincoln, invited as an afterthought to deliver ‘a few appropriate remarks’, or, as listed in the program for the event, ‘Dedicatory Remarks’.
Lincoln’s speech, in contrast to Everett’s marathon, consisted of only ten sentences, 272 words, and lasted barely two minutes. In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln summarized the principles of human equality as declared in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), and expressed the Civil War in terms of a struggle for “a new birth of freedom”.
‘A flat failure’
Lincoln, feeling weak with the onset of smallpox, was conscious of the inadequacy of his efforts, and returned to his seat, reputedly muttering to a colleague, ‘It is a flat failure’. His speech was met by a silence which some interpreted as admiration for what they had just heard, while others saw it was an awkward, anti-climatic response.
Edward Everett was evidently impressed; writing the following day to the president, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”
Lincoln’s speech, subsequently known as the Gettysburg Address, has gone down in history as one of the most famous oratories of modern times:
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.