November 19th 1863 - 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing after the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1st – 3rd 1863. It was a turning point in the American Civil War, the largest battle in the war and indeed in the history of North America. As was usual after a battle the dead were quickly buried, many in poorly marked graves. As a result a local lawyer, David Wills, made efforts to create a National Cemetery. This was supposed to be dedicated on October 23rd but Edward Everett, the main speaker, said that he needed more time to write his speech. Everett, a former US senator and Secretary of State, was considered one of the leading orators in the US at the time. It wasn’t until November 2nd that Wills also invited Abraham Lincoln to address the occasion. Lincoln wanted to take this opportunity to make a statement to the American people about the significance of the war. Everett spoke for 2 hours from memory. An orchestra played a new hymn specially written for the occasion and Lincoln spoke for 2 minutes. He said 272 words. In that time he invoked the principles of human equality in the Declaration of Independence and the desire for “a new birth of freedom”. It has often been referred to as the greatest speech ever made.
The American Civil War started due to differences between the slave states and free states and whether the national government could prohibit slavery. The election of Lincoln in 1860 as the first Republican pledging to end slavery fast forwarded the secession of 7 southern states to form a new National government – The Confederate State of America. Lincoln refused to recognise it, thinking that it set a very dangerous precedent. The war began at Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay on April 12th 1861. Confederates claimed that the fort was theirs and opened fire on the garrison forcing them to take down the US national flag. Lincoln called out the militia to suppress this uprising and four more states seceded as a result to join the Confederacy. By the end of 1861 nearly one million men faced each other along a 1200-mile line from Virginia to Missouri.
At the conclusion of the war 625,000 lives had been lost – nearly as many as have been lost in all the other conflicts the US have been involved in combined. If the War of Independence, 1776 – 1783, created the USA then the Civil War was to determine what sort of country it was going to be. It resolved the question of whether the US would be a dissolvable confederation of sovereign states or an indivisible nation with a national government. It would also resolve another key question. Was the US a nation that believed in an equal right to liberty or would it continue to be the largest slave holding country in the world?
For three years (1862-5) Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army had kept out the invasions, attacks and incursions of the Union army of the Potomac. Lee then led his army into the Union territory of central Pennsylvania. He hoped to cripple the opposition and win the support of both the British and French. He awaited the advance of the Union army. Initially the Unionists were successful but then the Confederates started to push them back. The following day saw Lee’s men hit the Union flanks, driving them backwards. He was unable though to completely dislodge them. On July 3rd Lee attacked in the centre on Cemetery Ridge but was pushed back by what is now known as Pickett’s charge. The invasion of the North had failed again. The Confederates had lost nearly a third of their entire army and this event was to be a turning point in the war.
By April 1865 the last Confederate armies surrendered. On April 9th Lee met Ulysses S. Grant, the leader of the Unionist forces, at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. The war had left the south bankrupt. Farms, roads and factories were in ruins and a generation of men were wiped out. Union soldiers now occupied the southern states and places were gradually rebuilt. Gradually these states were re-admitted to the US over the course of the next 20 years in an era known as The Reconstruction. Lee was neither arrested or punished but he did lose the right to vote. He applied to have his citizenship reinstated but his application was lost. It was found in 1870 and granted. He became the President of Washington College in Virginia, a position he held until his death on October 12th 1870.
Lincoln, who grew up in a log cabin in Kentucky and worked as a shopkeeper and a lawyer, entered politics in the 1840s. After being elected President in 1860 he was narrowly re-elected in 1864 against opponents who wanted to sign a peace treaty with the south. He began his speech by expressing the ideals of the founding fathers (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Maddison, Hamilton, Monroe and Franklin). He claimed that this war was a test of whether the 1776 Union would survive or “perish from the earth”. Those who had died had done so for the cause and now it was up to the living to ensure that “government, by the people, for the people, shall not perish”. The radical part of the speech centred not on the constitution but on the idea that the Declaration of Independence was the true expression of the founders’ intentions. Slave owners had pointed out that there was nothing in the constitution that forbade slavery. Lincoln, however, said that the nation formed in 1776 “was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and that this struggle was not just a struggle for the Union but also for the principle of human equality. Edward Everett later wrote to Lincoln saying, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in 2 hours as you did in 2 minutes.”
The words of his speech are inscribed in stone on the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech referenced the words, the present Constitution of France talks about government of the people, by the people and for the people, and the founding father of Modern China, Sun Yat-Sen, used this same idea for his “Three Principles of the People” book. There are five copies of the speech in Lincoln’s handwriting but only one copy is written, dated and signed by him. This currently hangs in the Lincoln Room in the White House and is known as the Bliss copy, after Colonel Alexander Bliss who asked Lincoln for a copy to use as a fundraiser for soldiers. Contrary to popular opinion he did not write it on a train but well in advance. The handwriting is even and consistent with being written on a hard surface not on a bumpy, Civil War age train. On June 1, 1865, Senator Charles Sumner referred to the most famous speech ever given by President Abraham Lincoln. In his eulogy on the slain president, he called the Gettysburg Address a "monumental act." He said Lincoln was mistaken that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Rather, the Bostonian remarked, "The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech."
Here is the speech in full:
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.