It was on this date in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln, speaking at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, delivered the Gettysburg Address.
It was around noon that day when a crowd of some 15,000 gathered on a hill that overlooked the battlefield where a scant four and half months earlier 7,863 Union and Confederate soldiers had died during the 3 day battle. In addition, 27,224 soldiers were wounded. The battle of Gettysburg accounted for the largest number of casualties of the entire Civil War and is generally regarded as the turning point of that great conflict.
Shortly after noon a military band played a few pieces of patriotic music and then a local preacher offered a rather lengthy prayer. The first speaker was Edward Everett, a former U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Governor, Secretary of State and Minister to Britain. Everett, who was a great orator, spoke for more than 2 hours as he described in detail the battle and brought the crowd to tears many times with his accounts of the heroism and tragedy of those 3 days.
Then, President Lincoln rose and began to speak. A photographer was setting up his camera to take photos of the President speaking and many in the crowd were distracted by the photographer’s movements. Suddenly, the President was finished and stepped back. A large number of the crowd, their attention diverted by the photographer, had not even realized the President had spoken.
In just a little over 2 minutes, with fewer than 300 words and only 10 sentences, President Lincoln had delivered what is now considered to be one the greatest speeches in American history; the Gettysburg Address.
Today, very few people who are not historians know what the military band played, what the local preacher prayed or what Edward Everett said in his speech of more than 2 hours. But vast numbers of school children across this country and adults in all walks of life recognize the first words and can quote parts or all of that great oration from memory.
The following day, Everett said to the President, “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.”
And in those few words, though he missed it the day before, Everett hit upon the “central idea of the occasion” that more is not always better.
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.
November 19, 1863