On November 19, 1863, precisely 153 years ago yesterday, President Abraham Lincoln gave a short speech at the site of a Civil War battlefield to dedicate seventeen acres on Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as a national military cemetery.
The conflict that had occurred there between the Union and the Confederate armies endured over the course of the first three days of July, earlier that year. The battle involved the largest number of casualties of the American Civil War, with some 46,000 to 51,000 soldiers killed or maimed from the two competing armies. Union troops under command of Major General George Meade engaged Confederate soldiers of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Although its significance at the time was less appreciated, the Union victory at Gettysburg effectively halted Lee's army's offensive campaign into what was known as "the Eastern theater", forcing its retreat from Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg has been described in historical retrospect as a turning point of the war, which up to that point had seen momentum favoring General Robert E. Lee's forces.
President Lincoln's speech, the Gettysburg Address, endured for just ten sentences. History looks upon it as one of the greatest, most succinct pieces of oration ever written or spoken over the course of mankind's existence. The speech as delivered was not recorded in any absolutely reproducible fashion. Several drafts of it in Lincoln's own hand have been preserved as our national memory of what was said. Below is reprinted one version (known as the "Bliss Copy") which has been enshrined and is on display in the Lincoln Room of the White House in Washington DC.
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 battle-field 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.
November 19, 1863