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Among all the speeches delivered in the history of the United States, few could be said to have anywhere near the impact of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Comprising just 270 words, the President’s two minutes of oratory helped to define the importance of maintaining the Union during some of the most uncertain days of the American Civil War.
On that particular Thursday afternoon, thousands gathered to declare the field outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania a national cemetery. For three days the previous July, the Union Army of the Potomac under General George Meade had fought the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by the venerated General Robert E. Lee. During a fierce battle in sweltering heat, at least 1 in 4 of the 160,000 soldiers on the field were killed or wounded.
The day would feature a variety of speakers and musical performances to commemorate the occasion. Despite what some believe, Lincoln’s words were not scheduled as the featured oratory. Edward Everett, a former Massachusetts Senator, would have the honor of delivering a two-hour monologue honoring the sacrifice made by so many. The committee which had petitioned for Gettysburg to receive its special status invited the President for “a few appropriate remarks” to add an official air to the proceedings.
Though the exact text of the speech has been lost — there are at least five drafts that exist with different wording — the words Lincoln spoke brought themes from the Declaration of Independence into the struggle to maintain the United States as a single country. Despite the fact Lee had been turned back during the combat of that July battle, a Union victory was still very much in doubt on November 19, 1863. The President, however, showed confidence in asserting 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.”
Scholars note the tone reflects funerary tributes dating to Greece and Rome, something common across the copies made before and after Lincoln delivered the address. (Two were given to his assistants on the day of the ceremony, while three were handed out to others afterwards.) Popular knowledge holds he wrote the speech on the train ride from Washington, DC, but instead the President took great care to reflect the solemn remembrance expected of the occasion while reminding attendees it would be “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 seemed as though the gravity of the Gettysburg Address had sank in from the beginning, with Edwards later writing 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.” In light of history, perhaps only the Declaration of Independence could be said to have had a greater effect on the definition of American culture than the President’s words that day.
Also On This Day:
1095 – The Council of Clermont opens, beginning the discussion between Pope Urban II and Catholic leadership about launching the First Crusade
1703 – Infamous French prisoner The Man in the Iron Mask dies
1942 – Soviet forces begin counterattacks at the Battle of Stalingrad, turning the German Army back
1954 – Prince Rainier III launches Tele Monte Carlo, the world’s oldest privately-owned television channel
1969 – Soccer player Pele scores his 1,000th career goal