On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a short speech at the close of ceremonies dedicating the battlefield cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Honoring a request to offer a few remarks, Lincoln memorialized the Union dead and highlighted the redemptive power of their sacrifice. Placing the common soldier at the center of the struggle for equality, Lincoln reminded his listeners of the higher purpose for which blood was shed.
…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.
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.
In composing the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln must have been reminded of the words of David Wills, a prominent citizen of Gettysburg charged with cleaning up after the grisly battle of July 1-3, 1863. Wills asked the president to attend the ceremony and make a “few appropriate remarks,” stating in his letter of invitation that Lincoln’s presence would:
…kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of those brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the field, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.
Judge David Wills to Abraham Lincoln, November 2, 1863. Manuscript Letter. [Invitation to speak at the consecration of a Civil War cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa.] The Gettysburg Address. Robert Todd Lincoln Papers. Manuscript Division
Edward Everett, perhaps the most popular orator of the day, spoke for two hours at the ceremony. Yet, Everett admitted to Lincoln,“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.” In spite of Lincoln’s disclaimer that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” his brief speech continues to resonate in the American memory.
- View the online exhibition The Gettysburg Address that features two of five known drafts of the Address. The exhibition includes a digitized version of the only known photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg.
- See the entry for the Gettysburg Address in the Library’s Primary Documents in American History Web guide series.
- Search the pictorial collections on Gettysburg to find more images of the town, battlefield, and memorials.
- Search Today in History on Gettysburg to read more about the battle waged there. Search on President Lincoln to read more about the Lincoln administration.
- Search the Civil War Maps collection to locate military maps of the Battle of Gettysburg.