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A Remarkable Orator
Abraham Lincoln has long been one of the most cherished presidents in American history. Though his time in office was almost entirely consumed by the Civil War, he was the leader that America needed at that hour.
Lincoln demonstrated his ability to lead numerous times, but perhaps his greatest talent was his ability to deliver remarkable speeches. Both before and during the Civil War, Lincoln used speeches to rally and unite the populace. None of his speeches is more fondly remembered, however, than the Gettysburg Address. Before getting into the subject matter of the speech, it is important to understand the politics and figureheads of the era, as well as the events that lead to the speech.
The Civil War Begins
The Civil War broke out in April 1861, with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Three months later, the first major battle of the war was fought near Bull Run Creek in Manassas, Virginia. This resulted in a significant Confederate victory and ended any hope of a quick resolution to the conflict.
For the next two years, Union and Confederate soldiers clashed in a series of large battles, including those fought at Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Then, in May 1863, the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, resulted in the most successful Confederate victory of the war. This was also, however, where General Robert E. Lee lost his best commanding officer, General “Stonewall” Jackson. With a resounding victory at Chancellorsville, Lee made a bold decision. It was time to invade the North.
A Turning Point
From July 1-3, 1863, the largest battle of the war was fought in southern Pennsylvania, in and around the town of Gettysburg. Until this point, Confederate forces had won almost every major battle in the east. With a victory here, they might have marched to Washington DC, and possibly would have secured British and French support. The first day at Gettysburg resulted in a minor Confederate victory.
The second day, however, witnessed Union forces repelling the Confederate advancement up Little Round Top. On the third day, the war’s turning point was secured. General Lee ordered Generals Pickett and Pettigrew to attack a Union position, which was fortified behind a rock wall and across an open field. The charge resulted in failure, with most of the participants being killed, wounded, or captured. General Lee left Pennsylvania, and though the war would continue for almost two more years, the tide had turned in favor of the Union.
Four months later, on November 19, 1863, President Lincoln stood among a crowd at Gettysburg to dedicate a speech in honor of those Union soldiers. Though it would be nowhere near as lengthy as some speeches in American history, Lincoln’s words still echo to this day.
“Four Score and Seven Years Ago…”
Many people are familiar with the start of the oration. “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.” On July 4, 1776, Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. With this, they laid the groundwork for the Constitution, which was introduced in 1787.
In 1861, Lincoln had referred to the Constitution and the Union as a “frame of silver.” Likewise, he equated the Declaration and its defining principle to an “apple of gold.” He stated, “The picture was made for the apple – not the apple for the picture.” At Gettysburg, Lincoln continued, “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 battlefield 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 the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
“We Cannot Hallow this Ground”
While Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War, it was also the largest battle. Over 100,000 soldiers were present at the battle and the casualties for both the Union and Confederate armies were great. An estimated 50,000 soldiers were killed during the three days of battle.
Speaking on the enormous cost of Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln stated, “But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we cannot 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 Essence of Anarchy
The world’s eyes were on the conflict in America. According to the National Park Service, when secession began, the European monarchies cheered it. The democratic experiment in the French Revolution had failed, and resulted in a dictator far worse than what the French people had before. America was the only successful democratic-republic in the world at the time, and the kings in Europe detested it. Therefore, when the states began seceding, the monarchies celebrated.
To Lincoln, secession was the essence of anarchy, and a government that allowed it was sure to collapse. As president, he was bound and determined not to let the “last best hope of earth” fall so that a few elite slaveholders could keep their interests in check. With a victory at Gettysburg, the Union was on track for redemption. Lincoln said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
“A New Birth of Freedom”
The Civil War ended in April 1865, following General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Over the next several years, the states were readmitted, one by one, back into the Union. Three new amendments were added to the Constitution: the 13th, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishable for a crime; the 14th, which granted citizenship to freed slaves and anyone born subject to US jurisdiction; and the 15th, which gave all citizens, regardless of race, the right to vote.
Though some states would still use local laws to discriminate over the following decades, the road for a new birth of freedom was paved. Lincoln finished his address by stating, “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 here 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.”
As the speech concluded, Lincoln’s words would be sealed in the hearts and minds of Americans forever. Today, the Gettysburg Address remains one of the most memorable and iconic American speeches. May we always remember those words of dedication.