“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.”
— Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
Next year will be the 150th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg. From July 1-3, 1863, the Union and Confederate armies fought in and around the small town of Gettysburg, Pa. The battle ended when General Robert E. Lee called for the retreat of his Confederate soldiers.
When dawn broke July 4, those who survived the carnage were confronted with a devastating scene: More than 40,000 soldiers from both armies lay dead on the battlefield. As Civil War scholar and author Gabor Boritt writes in “The Gettysburg Gospel,” for the citizens of Gettysburg, “war had come to them. Then it had gone and left the horror behind.”
Such an event seems unimaginable today, but for those who were alive when the Battle of Gettysburg took place, it was yet another catastrophic moment in a long, terrifying war. Debates still continue about whether or not Gettysburg was the turning point in the war, but one fact cannot be denied: the largest number of Civil War casualties happened there.
When President Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg in November 1863 to dedicate a new National Cemetery, he was painfully aware of how much Pennsylvania and the rest of the United States had already suffered. He also knew that the fighting had to continue and that soldiers and citizens would have to shed more blood before the war was over. These thoughts were heavy on his mind when he wrote the Gettysburg Address.
Boritt does an amazing job describing not only the events leading up to the famous speech, but also how Lincoln’s uncommon trip away from a wartime White House affected the nation.
Today we view the Gettysburg Address as one of the most important speeches in American history, but when President Lincoln was invited to Gettysburg to help dedicate the cemetery, the expectation was that his few remarks would be secondary to a presentation by the esteemed orator Edward Everett.
As we now know, Everett’s speech is long forgotten by most people, but President Lincoln’s “remarks” — less than 300 words total — have and will remain a powerful tribute to mankind.