Civil War Legacies

The Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg address was delivered on November 19th, 1863 during the dedication ceremony for the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln was the second speaker. He declined the request to deliver a speech, stating that “…in his position it was somewhat important not to say any foolish things.” Lincolns brief, two hundred and seventy two word, two minute performance had more of an influence over the crowd of 15,000 than did that of Edward Everett, the scheduled keynote speaker, whose discourse lasted two hours. Ironically, Lincoln’s few words became one of the most famous speeches in American history.

Background to the Address

Five months prior to Lincoln’s speech Confederate General Robert E. Lee had marched his men up from Virginia and into Northern territory where they met the Union Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg. The battle went on for three days with more than 43,000 casualties, including 4,708 Confederate soldiers and 3,155 Union soldiers killed. It was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. So many men were killed in the devastating battle that most Confederate soldiers were buried in shallow, often unidentified graves while Union soldier graves were scattered across the battlefield. A short while later a northern politician walked through the battlefield and noticed that weathering had revealed the corpses of the fallen soldiers. He was appalled at the treatment of these servicemen and swiftly arranged for the collection of funds in order to open a new cemetery.

Immediate Reactions to Lincoln’s Address

Reactions to the address were varied. Newspapers in Richmond controlled most of the reporting on the dedication ceremony in the South [Jared E. Peatman, “Virginians’ Responses to the Gettysburg Address, 1863-1963,” MA Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2006:9]. As a result Southern newspapers often ignored Lincoln’s words, printing only Everett’s keynote speech, while others criticized Lincoln’s words as too brief and inadequate. To some African Americans Lincoln’s words about equality seemed to offer hope for a better future. Others were skeptical over whether or not the words really applied to them.

In the North, Lincoln was praised almost immediately for his emotional and lingering words. Edward Everett wrote that Lincoln, “…is the idol of the American people at this moment. Anyone who saw and heard as I did, the hurricane of applause that met his every movement in Gettysburg would know that he lived in every heart.”

Five original copies of the address are known to exist. Of these, the “Nicolay Copy” at the Library of Congress is the earliest known draft. The first page was written on White House stationary while the second was written on foolscap. This supports the theory that Lincoln began writing the speech in Washington and finished it at Gettysburg. This copy was given to George A. Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary.

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Text by Raquell Russell