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Abraham Lincoln. Library of Congress, Words and Deeds in American History Collection Alternate: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet

[Detail] The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

The Gettysburg Address

While the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is generally remembered as a Union victory, it was also a missed opportunity that bitterly disappointed Lincoln. Union General Meade failed to pursue General Lee's retreating army and allowed them to escape across the Potomac River. According to his July 21 letter to General Oliver O. Howard, Lincoln had believed that once a rebel army went north of the Potomac, the Union forces would be able to prevent it from ever returning south. He drafted a letter to General Meade expressing his disappointment:

"You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours — He retreated; and you did not; as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him....

Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape — He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war — As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely."

From "Abraham Lincoln to George G. Meade, July 14, 1863 (Meade's failure to pursue Lee)."

Lincoln never sent Meade this letter. Nevertheless, Meade was aware of the President's disappointment and offered his resignation, but Lincoln did not accept.

When the Union and Confederate forces left the battlefield at Gettysburg, they both left 50,000 dead, wounded, or missing behind. Burial teams were sent in to quickly cover the 8,000 bodies left on the battlefield until an interstate committee could be created to arrange for a military cemetery.

On November 2, 1863, David Wills, Gettysburg citizen and chairman of the interstate committee, sent Lincoln an invitation to attend the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg and make a "few appropriate remarks." Arrangements for Lincoln to attend the dedication are also available by searching on Gettysburg.

Edward Everett, the nation's most celebrated orator, was the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony. In keeping with expectations of the time, Everett gave a two-hour address recounting the battle in great detail, decrying the Confederacy, and exonerating Meade for failing to pursue Lee's forces. And yet, on the day after the ceremony, Everett wrote Lincoln congratulating him on his remarks and stating, "I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes." Requests for copies of Lincoln's address also attest to the impact of the president's remarks.

Of the five known copies of the address in Lincoln's hand, two were written expressly for his secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. Search on Gettysburg address for both copies. Analyze Lincoln's address, keeping in mind the context of the battle and the dedication ceremony.

  • Occurring only about four months after the battle at Gettysburg, what significance do you think the dedication of the military cemetery had?
  • What would the dedication ceremony have meant to the citizens of Gettysburg, to friends and relatives of soldiers buried at Gettysburg, and to the nation?
  • According to David Wills's invitation to Lincoln, what was the purpose of having Lincoln speak at the dedication ceremony? Do you think that Lincoln's address fulfilled that purpose?
  • Why do you think Lincoln's remarks were so short?
  • Why do you think Lincoln chose not to even mention some of the things that Everett discussed, such as the people and causes involved in the war?
  • How did Lincoln define the purpose of the Civil War in his address?
  • How did this definition compare to the way Everett must have represented the war in discussing its battles, its opposing sides, and even, according to Lincoln's November 20 letter to Everett, the debate over state sovereignty?
  • What is it about the Gettysburg address that makes it so poetic?
  • Why do you think the Gettysburg address is one of the most celebrated works of American literature?