One of the most well-known speeches in American History, the Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, was part of the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
It had been over four months since the Battle of Gettysburg and the Union victory over the Confederates. It was a battle that was the bloodiest of the Civil War and is often cited as the turning point, as it would be the last Confederate invasion in the north and the beginning of the southern armies’ decline. Approximately 51,000 soldiers lost their lives at Gettysburg that previous July, of which 23,000 were Union and 28,000 Confederate.
The Union dead were set to be reburied from the battlefield to the new National Cemetery. Lincoln was invited by the committee overseeing the event, who wrote: “It is the desire that, after the Oration, you as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”
During his train trip for the ceremony, Lincoln was ill, complaining of weakness and dizziness. On the day of the speech, John Hay would note that the President had a ‘ghastly color’ to his face and that Lincoln appeared ‘sad, mournful, almost haggard.’
Lincoln waited patiently as the Oration, given by Edward Everett, and intended as the actual Gettysburg Address, lasted two hours. After Everett was through, Lincoln spoke for only a few moments to the crowd of about 15,000 but could sum up the Civil War in only a few words. He redefined the war as not only for the Union but also for the rebirth of freedom.
There are five different manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address, including two draft versions given by Lincoln to his private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay.
Three other versions were written after the address by Lincoln, one of which, called the Bliss copy, is now widely recognized as the accepted version of the speech, mainly because it is the only version that Lincoln signed and is the last version he wrote.
The Bliss version reads:
“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 battlefield 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.”
After the speech, Lincoln boarded a train back to Washington D.C., and by this time, he was feverish and weak. Lincoln was diagnosed with a mild case of smallpox and would be ill for some time. The reception of the speech by those that listened was mixed and typically divided along partisan lines. However, it wasn’t long before the impact would be cemented in history.
Today the speech remains among the most famous in American History and is carved into the stone of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. However, the exact wording and location at Gettysburg where he made the speech remain in dispute. Those that have studied photos from that day, along with reading witness accounts, indicate that the actual speech occurred in what is now the private “Evergreen Cemetery” next to Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
Compiled and edited by Dave Alexander, updated February 2024.