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The Gettysburg Address

Originally aired on November 18, 1994 - In part 12 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson provides the story behind that famous speech President Lincoln gave in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863

#12 – The Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was an unanticipated guest in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Back in July, this little community in the southern part of the state had been the scene of three days of intense combat. The battle of Gettysburg had produced almost 50,000 casualties. Now, in the quiet autumn of that year, Pennsylvania officials planned to dedicate part of a new cemetery containing the bodies of some of the 3,100 Union soldiers hastily interred after the battle.

The distinguished orator, Edward Everett of Boston, was to give the main address. When the program committee courteously invited Mr. Lincoln to attend the ceremony, and the President surprised one and all by accepting, the committee hastily asked him to “make a few appropriate remarks” at the end of the program.

Close to 20,000 people gathered in the cemetery for the dedication. It was clear and chilly that Thursday. The white-haired, well-attired Everett spoke for two hours as the crowd leaned forward to listen. Lincoln then rose awkwardly from his seat. He shambled to the podium, put on his spectacles, unfolded a single sheet of paper, and began speaking in a high-pitched Midwestern twang.

His comments took about three minutes. He finished almost before many in the large audience were aware that he had begun. The applause came tardily. A photographer was still fussing with his camera when the President sat down.

Reaction to Lincoln’s speech was mixed. Some individuals, including Everett, praised Lincoln’s statements. Yet the Chicago Times sneered at what it termed “the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States”.

Lincoln returned to Washington that night. He would have felt more disappointed at his Gettysburg performance had he not been so ill. On arrival at the White House, he went straight to bed with a mild form of smallpox. Thereafter, the pressures of war were such that neither Lincoln nor anyone else gave second thoughts to his “few appropriate remarks” at Gettysburg.

The passage of time, however, has immortalized the 270 well-chosen words that Lincoln spoke. His Gettysburg Address offered Americans a chart and a prayer for years to come. On this eve of a holiday that we so often forget is called Thanksgiving, it is appropriate to listen once again to Lincoln’s thoughts. They are a strong clear call that is ageless.

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nations, 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 it, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation may live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate –we cannot consecrate – we cannot 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 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 here 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.”

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.