This day in 1863, on a Thursday afternoon, President Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, four and a half months after the Union’s watershed victory there. Just 272 words and running at around 2 minutes in length, the speech is held by many to be the greatest and most famous piece of oratory in all American, if not world history.
The three-day battle that past July was the most mortal of the entire war, with casualties and losses of up to 53,000 total for both sides, and is often described as the war’s turning point. Fresh off of his success at Chancellorsville in Virginia in May 1863, Gen. Lee had led his army through the Shenandoah Valley to begin his second invasion of the North; the Gettysburg Campaign. With his army in high spirits, Lee intended to shift the focus of the summer campaign from war-torn northern Virginia and hoped to influence Northern politicians to relent on the larger war by penetrating as far as Harrisburg, or even Philadelphia.
At the end of three bloody days, Union Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac defeated these daring and deep attacks by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, soundly halting Lee’s invasion of the North; Lee never again breached the Union border as established after Secession. Indeed, the C.S.A. had reached its high-water mark; Britain rejected further entreaties to assist the South, Grant scored a stunning victory to the west at Vicksburg, the Union was further galvanized, and the slow, bloody and inexorable Northern victory was now in sight.
So for the inside baseball, the chair of the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, David Wills, invited President Lincoln to the dedication just two weeks prior as an afterthought. The featured speaker, Edward Everett, was a professional orator who’d held various offices, and as was his wont, spoke for a full two hours. Unbeknownst to many, Lincoln was suffering from the onset of small-pox, yet sat patiently through each one of Everett’s 13,607 words.
Lincoln then rose, began with “Four score and seven years ago,” and finished thusly:
“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.”