The Story of the Gettysburg Address—and What It Can Teach Us Today

He arrived in the small Pennsylvania town on November 18, 1863, a day before he was to give one of his few national addresses. He wasn't alone. Gettysburg's population at the time was less than 3,000, but nearly 15,000 people would gather the next day at the official dedication ceremony for the Soldiers' National Cemetery on the site of one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of the Civil War.

President Abraham Lincoln arrived early because he wanted to see the battlefield. To see in person what he had only before seen on maps and official reports. He wanted to see the ground. And walk the ground.

"I would like to say that Gettysburg is a place, that if you let it, the land will speak to you," historian Gabor Boritt told C-SPAN back in 2007. Boritt, the director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College at the time, is the author of The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows. "He went by carriage with just a few people, wandering the battlefield," he said. "The image of that is so compelling. I think it spoke to Lincoln."

It was only four months earlier, in early July, that an even larger gathering of humanity made its way to the same battlefield. General Robert E. Lee showed up with 75,000 men, and General George Meade with up to 100,000. Three days later, Gettysburg was the site of the worst man-made disaster in American history.

The first chapter of Boritt's book describes what the small town was like in the weeks after the fighting ended.

Stench fills the air. Excrement from perhaps 180,000 men and more than 70,000 horses has been left behind. There are thousands of flies. Millions. Dead men barely covered in shallow graves. Seven thousand dead men? More likely close to 10,000. How many dead horses and mules? Three thousand, five? None buried. A nurse writes of carcasses "steaming in the sun." When strangers approach the town, "the odors of the battlefield" attack them long before they get there.

Gettysburg
A statue of Union Major General Henry Warner Slocum stands on Stevens Knoll at the Gettysburg National Military Park on August 11. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Perhaps no one wrote more eloquently about the carnage, according to Boritt, than a volunteer nurse from Philadelphia, Eliza Farnham.

"The whole town is one vast hospital," she wrote in her diary. "It is absolutely inconceivable, the dead and dying and wounded, torn to pieces in every way. Moans, shrieks, weeping and prayer fill houses, the barns, the tents, the fields, the woods, the whole area. The land itself seems to wail. Nothing but suffering. Sights, sounds, smells unbearable. Horror. The piles of limbs dripping blood, the dying, the dead. Hell on earth."

It was a brutal battle, with over 50,000 casualties. But it was also a pivotal one. Lee was hoping a loss at Gettysburgjust a short distance from a great Northern city like Philadelphiamight be enough to prompt Northerners to call it quits and turn Lincoln out in the upcoming election of 1864.

Lincoln understood the importance of the speech he was about to give. "It was only halfway through the war, and people were sick and tired of it, Boritt noted. "And this bloodshed continued day after day, year after year."

What was Lincoln trying to accomplish with his short address? "His job was to tell the American people why this must go on," Boritt explained about the war. "Why it's worthwhile. Why the United States had to be saved. The speech is not simply a benediction or a blessing on the dead. It's a call to action. It's telling Americans: This is who we are. It's worth fighting for and dying for."

Lincoln's address followed what was supposed to be, by all accounts, the real Gettysburg address, that by former U.S. Senator and Harvard College President Edward Everett, which clocked in at nearly two hours and contained 13,607 words, all forgotten.

"Then Lincoln rose," historian David McCullough described in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War. "A local photographer took his time focusing. Presumably the president could be counted on to go for a while. But he spoke just 269 words. Lincoln was heading back to his seat before the photographer could open the shutter."

The address was not famous after it was finished, Boritt said. "A lot of newspapers didn't even mention it." Those that did gave the speech a mixed reception. "Republican newspapers praised it," Boritt explained, "and Democrats, viewing it as the beginning of Lincoln's re-election campaign, belittled or tried to ignore it. One Democratic newspaper called the address a 'mawkish harangue.'"

The speech was pretty much forgotten until the 1880s: This was before the age of radio, TV and YouTube, after all. One person knew it was a speech for the ages. "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes," Everett later wrote to Lincoln.

Why will the Gettysburg Address be forever remembered? "The radical aspect of the speech," Boritt said, "began with Lincoln's assertion that the Declaration of Independenceand not the Constitutionwas the true expression of the Founding Fathers' intentions for their new nation. At that time, many white slave owners had declared themselves to be 'true' Americans, pointing to the fact that the Constitution did not prohibit slavery. According to Lincoln, the nation formed in 1776 was 'dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'"

But Boritt wasn't finished. "In an interpretation that was radical at the timebut is now taken for grantedLincoln's historic address redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union but also for the principle of human equality."

The address will also be forever remembered for its sheer brevity and gravity. And, of course, for its poetry. The source of that poetry was a book almost all Americans, including Lincoln, knew intimately.

"Lincoln had mastered the sound of the King James Bible so completely that he could recast abstract issues of constitutional law in biblical terms, making the proposition that Texas and New Hampshire should be forever bound by a single post office sound like something right out of Genesis," author and essayist Adam Gopnik wrote.

"I think it is an American speech, and it summed up for us who we are," Boritt said. "It has a sacred quality to it. It is the good news of America. It is America at its best."

As we think about today's partisan divide, The consequences of America's division back in 1863, after all, were more profound than a tweet storm or being ghosted on Instagram. Hundreds of thousands of Americas fought and died to make America a more complete union in those long four years. A more just and free nation.

On this day, all Americans should read aloud the words Lincoln spoke to that crowd in Gettysburg back in 1863. Read them to friends, neighbors, church members and family. And take them to heart. For we are all lucky to be a part of the greatest national experiment of all time: a government, as Lincoln reminded us, of the people, by the people and for the people.

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.