Gettysburg Address Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On November 19, 1863, four months after one of the most brutal (and pivotal) battles of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln stood on the same battlefield for two purposes. The first was to commemorate the fallen and “consecrate” the land as a national cemetery. The second was to inspire the nation, which remained at war, to continue to fight for the democratic principles on which the United States was founded. The speech was extremely short–less than three hundred words in length–but was nonetheless extremely impactful, using powerful and poetic language. Despite its brevity, the Gettysburg Address, as it is called, stands as one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Summary Overview

On November 19, 1863, four months after one of the most brutal (and pivotal) battles of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln stood on the same battlefield for two purposes. The first was to commemorate the fallen and “consecrate” the land as a national cemetery. The second was to inspire the nation, which remained at war, to continue to fight for the democratic principles on which the United States was founded. The speech was extremely short–less than three hundred words in length–but was nonetheless extremely impactful, using powerful and poetic language. Despite its brevity, the Gettysburg Address, as it is called, stands as one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Defining Moment

In the spring of 1863, General Robert E. Lee led the Confederate States Army into Pennsylvania, having proven successful in repelling Union advances into Virginia. Lee was pursuing two goals: the abundant supplies of the Pennsylvania farmland and a push away from Virginia and into the North. The Union Army of the Potomac, led by General George Gordon Meade, marched north and west in order to protect Washington, DC, from Lee’s army, which organized fully in Gettysburg, awaiting the oncoming Union counterattack.

From July 1 through July 3, the two armies clashed violently on this hilly region of eastern Pennsylvania. More than 160,000 men took part in a series of bloody attacks and counterattacks, with both sides gaining and losing ground during the battle’s many engagements. Finally, on the battle’s third day, a twelve-thousand-man Confederate charge up Cemetery Ridge–the infamous “Pickett’s Charge”–was repelled by the Union’s cannons and guns, forcing Lee and his men to disengage and begin the long march back to Virginia. More than fifty thousand Union and Confederate men were killed, wounded, or captured during this bloody battle.

Four months later, President Lincoln arrived on the battlefield to commemorate the Union victory, honor the dead, and dedicate a large portion of the battlefield as the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Fifteen thousand people came to witness the ceremony. Boston professor, diplomat, and statesman Edward Everett, who was known for his brilliant oratory skills, was invited to deliver the ceremony’s keynote address. Everett’s address to the crowd was two hours long, illustrating the countless details of the battles and drawing comparisons between the Gettysburg combatants to the warriors of ancient Greece.

Lincoln had a number of important tasks to accomplish during his speech. First, he attempted to comfort the American people who had witnessed the bloody battle. He also needed to honor the dead–Union and Confederate alike–who had taken part in the campaign. Third, he needed to move the country forward; because the Civil War was far from over, he needed to inspire the American people to continue to follow his lead in defeating the Confederacy. Finally, he needed to make a statement to the Confederacy as well, reminding the South that the North would not yield in its efforts to reunite the Union as one nation.

Following Everett’s brilliant (if verbose) speech, Lincoln’s brief, two-minute speech surprised the crowd and left them silent for several moments; the audience had expected the American president to say more. Nevertheless, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was highly influential, accomplishing Lincoln’s goals and inspiring the country to move forward toward ending the Civil War.

Author Biography

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, Kentucky, to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. His mother died when he was only nine years old. Lincoln and his father moved several times after Nancy’s death, first to Indiana and then to Illinois. Living on the frontier and moving frequently, Lincoln was afforded a minimal childhood education (his school in Indiana was a log cabin, and his father assisted in his education at home), although he quickly developed a love for literature, with particular interest in the law.

In 1832, while he was in his twenties, Lincoln joined the army as a volunteer during the Black Hawk War. He quickly rose through the chain of command, elected captain of his unit within months of joining. After the war, Lincoln was involved in a number of business activities, including work on a riverboat and in a store, before he set up a law practice in New Salem, Illinois. He was initially defeated in a campaign for the Illinois state legislature, but he continued to practice law (and also held a number of local government positions) before successfully campaigning again for the state legislature in 1834. He was reelected three times before retiring from the legislature and returning to practicing law in Springfield. In 1847, he was elected, as a member of the Whig Party, to the US House of Representatives, a post he held for one term.

In 1855, Lincoln ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate. He tried again in 1858, this time as a Republican; the unsuccessful campaign included the famous debates with his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas. During the same year, he married Mary Todd, with whom he would have four children (although only one survived childhood). In 1860, Lincoln, undaunted by his previous electoral defeats, ran for president on the Republican ticket. This time, he was successful. He was reelected in 1864.

President Lincoln’s 1861–65 presidential tenure was marked by not only his Civil War accomplishments, but also his role in building the Republican Party, unifying the northern Democrats, bringing an end to slavery, and even improving relations with the Indians on the American frontier. After the war, he led the effort to reconcile the nation’s relationship with the secessionist South. However, he was unable to complete his work as president–in 1865, while attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. After three days of being laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda, he was interred at Oak Grove Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.

Document Analysis

The Gettysburg Address was written only a day before President Lincoln arrived at the Gettysburg battlefield. Although the keynote address by Everett was the most highly anticipated of the presentations during the ceremony, Lincoln’s presence was nonetheless expected to be significant. His comments needed to be both comforting and inspiring. Despite the fact that it was only two minutes long, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address met these expectations, at least in the years that followed his delivery.

The Battle of Gettysburg had occurred only a few months before, which meant that the commemoration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery would be an emotional experience. After all, only months before, on that very field, thousands of bodies sat rotting in the hot summer sun, emitting a foul odor and leaving a stain on the ground that likely remained when the crowd gathered for Lincoln and Everett’s ceremony.

There is a common myth that Lincoln quickly jotted down the speech on the back of an envelope while on the train from Washington, DC, to Gettysburg. This story might account for the short length of the speech. The fact that the speech was written on Lincoln’s official White House stationery, however, casts doubt on this legend. In all likelihood, historians believe, Lincoln was working on this speech for weeks before leaving on the train. Although this speech was exceptional in terms of its brevity, it was reflective of Lincoln’s style. His speeches were frequently short (his second inaugural address was only seven hundred words in length, for example) and filled with language and imagery that were typically his (as opposed to speeches that were inspired by classical literature and religious ideals). Lincoln’s address, therefore, was presented in this manner because he wanted to effectively meet the lofty goals the speech demanded.

The tasks at hand for Lincoln were to honor the dead and inspire the living. This challenge was all the more difficult for the president because of the conditions at hand. The Civil War was by no means over. In fact, although the Gettysburg campaign sent Lee and his troops back to Virginia, the war continued to rage onward. The country remained divided and in danger of becoming even more fractured to a point that it would completely disintegrate. Given the political circumstances, Lincoln would need to speak not only to the bloody battle that had just occurred only months earlier, but also to the country’s direction going forward from this point in history. Convincing the audience of the value of moving forward in the war against the South would be difficult–Lincoln needed to make the point that the unconscionable violence that occurred on the very ground on which they all stood was necessary, and future, similar bloodshed would also be needed to protect the nation.

Lincoln’s address begins by speaking to the foundations of what Alexis de Tocqueville called “the great experiment” that is the United States. “Four score and seven years ago” (eighty-seven years), he states, the United States pronounced itself a new nation through the Declaration of Independence. This new nation would be based on the personal liberties and equality of all.

Likely standing on a stage on Cemetery Hill (where Pickett’s Charge hastened the end of the battle), Lincoln chose to begin his address by referencing the founding of the country to remind Americans of what was at stake in the Civil War. The United States became unified under the principles of liberty and freedom, which would apply to all Americans. The war was endangering both those principles and the fabric of the relatively young nation.

The next sentence of the address speaks directly to this threat. The war, which was three years old at the time of Lincoln’s speech, had already stretched the fabric of the United States. As Lincoln says in his speech, the war was a test of the durability of the liberty and freedom the nation’s founders had brought into being. Lincoln even broadened the significance of this battle beyond American borders–when referring to this “test,” he questions whether or not any nation founded on the same principles could withstand a civil war such as that which was occurring in the United States. (Implicit in his statement is the fact that many other nations adopted constitutions and democratic principles not long after the American Revolution.)

Indeed, Lincoln understood the international stakes if the Confederacy was successful in its attempts to permanently fracture the United States. The economic promise of opening commercial relations with the resource-rich Confederate States of America was a great incentive for recognizing the region’s legitimacy. The Confederate government in Richmond understood this fact and therefore petitioned both France and Great Britain to recognize it. It also looked to these countries to provide financial and other forms of assistance. Should any foreign governments get involved in the war, the advantage could tilt to the South. Gettysburg helped the Union regain its footing–Lincoln did not want to lose the momentum that had barely been established after battle. By including other democratic countries in the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was linking the United States to foreign governments, ideally discouraging them from helping the Confederacy and encouraging them to stay out of the Civil War.

Lincoln’s point was that the country was “conceived” in the notions of liberty and freedom. These principles were on the minds and in the hearts of every American in 1776, making the establishment of a new nation based on such concepts an absolute priority during that period. The onset of a true civil war that threatened to completely disintegrate the United States of America, however, proved that a great number of Americans had lost sight of this priority. Lincoln begins his speech, therefore, by reminding the audience, and indeed the entire nation, of this once top priority and the value of continuing the fight to preserve the Union.

If the Civil War continued in this brutal fashion, Lincoln states, it is possible that the war would eventually destroy the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence. The Battle of Gettysburg was the battle with the greatest number of casualties, and it represented a major turning point in the war, as the Union Army was able to turn around Lee’s forces. For this reason, Gettysburg was, in Lincoln’s view, “a great battlefield” worthy of recognition.

In light of the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg, Lincoln says, it was appropriate to honor the soldiers who gave their lives so “that that nation might live.” Because of this sacrifice, it was “altogether fitting and proper” to turn a portion of the battlefield into a national cemetery. Lincoln’s speech underscores this point for the audience by not placing the president in a position to consecrate the cemetery himself. Instead, his speech shows outright humility and respect for the fallen. In reality, the president says, those who stood on this commemorative site were not in a position to dedicate or consecrate this hallowed ground. Rather, he says, the living and the dead who fought at Gettysburg a few months earlier had already done so through their struggles, and those in attendance at the ceremony–Lincoln included–possessed the “poor power to add or detract” to the consecration of the site.

Lincoln was known for his writing and public-speaking prowess, and the Gettysburg Address serves as a showcase for both talents. Lincoln’s use of contrasts, for example, was particularly effective for connecting with the audience’s emotions. For example, he refers to both the living and the dead, connecting the fallen at Gettysburg to those who survived and those who would benefit from the sacrifices of the dead.

Another example of Lincoln’s use of contrasts can be found in his statement on the deeds of the fallen. Lincoln states that the “world will little note nor long remember” the words that were spoken at the Gettysburg commemoration ceremony. Although these words will be forgotten, he says, the world will forever remember the deeds committed on this battlefield. The contrast between what will be remembered and forgotten resonates, as it reminds the audience of the value of mere rhetoric in comparison to action. After all, he says, the acts of the Union soldiers at Gettysburg, who were risking (and in the case of thousands, giving) their lives to protect the American way of life, could be connected to similar actions by the Founding Fathers, who took similar risks to establish this nation.

In this regard, Lincoln not only honors the fallen of Gettysburg but also issues an imperative for the American people. What happened at Gettysburg (and indeed, what was happening on every battlefield during the Civil War) involved American troops fighting with zeal to protect the Union. By reminding his audience of their actions, Lincoln is telling every American that they too must join him and the rest of the American government to fight the notion of Southern secession.

President Lincoln’s call for action becomes far more direct when he calls upon the American people to continue the work performed by those who participated in the Battle of Gettysburg. He implies that the people should continue what American soldiers began during this battle. “It is for us the living,” he says, “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Using such language, Lincoln is directly linking the success of the Union troops to the rest of the United States.

Lincoln appeals to the emotions of his audience in this regard, adding that the American people were linked not only to the Union Army’s success at Gettysburg, but also to the loss of life there. He professes that the people should take note of the devotion demonstrated by those who died. Based on the example of those who fell in battle, he says, Americans should show similar devotion to their country by fighting for the Union. Lincoln asserts that if Americans come together in this manner, those who died during the Battle of Gettysburg shall not have died in vain.

Lincoln finishes his address by once again harking back to the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence. With the active support of the American people, the aforementioned threat to the principles of liberty and freedom may be averted. As stated earlier, Lincoln was afraid that the country that was borne from the Declaration of Independence may have become lost over the course of less than a century. However, if the people take up the cause to which the participants of Gettysburg were dedicated, a new nation, with a “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people” would be reborn in its place.

Furthermore, if the American people took up the mantle of the fallen of Gettysburg, they would not only be responsible for ensuring the survival of the democratic government found in the United States, but also their success in bringing about a favorable end to the Civil War would protect the liberty and freedom espoused by other governments. At risk in this war, Lincoln implies, was the notion of democracy, and with the end of the war, such institutions would not cease to exist on Earth.

As mentioned earlier, Lincoln’s speech was initially received with surprise, primarily because of the fact that it was over almost as soon as it began. The crowd at hand responded with a smattering of applause, which famed historian Shelby Foote described in Civil War: A Narrative–Volume Two (1963) as “barely polite.” While the brevity of Lincoln’s speech played a major role in the initial response from the crowd, when the speech was later reviewed by the media, it became clear that the politics of the time would also play a role in Americans’ response. The Chicago Times, a longtime critic of Lincoln, skewered the speech as little more than “silly, flat and dishwatery utterances” (Edwards). On the other hand, the Republican-leaning (and therefore pro-Lincoln) New York Times showered the address with compliments. Lincoln clearly understood the political landscape–and that not all Americans were firmly behind their president–when he wrote the speech.

Given the politics at hand, Lincoln is said to have had his own doubts about how the speech should have been written and how it would be received. Although he was correct in his initial assessment, the speech would find nearly universal favor after the war’s end and throughout postwar American history.

Essential Themes

Four months after the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln arrived on the battlefield in eastern Pennsylvania to commemorate the site as a national cemetery. Although Lincoln was not supposed to give a major speech (that responsibility fell to Everett), his comments were expected to be poignant and inspiring, especially in light of the significance of the event. At less than three hundred words, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address surprised the crowd of fifteen thousand as a result of its brevity, but those words were nonetheless momentous.

There were two major themes present in Lincoln’s speech. The first was paying homage to the soldiers, both living and dead, who fought bravely and risked (and even gave) their lives to preserve the Union. The commemoration of the national cemetery would serve as the vehicle for this homage. Lincoln carefully crafted his words in such a way that he avoided assuming any power over such a task. Instead, he says in his speech, the men who took part in this battle (particularly those who lost their lives) had already consecrated the land. His choice of language in this capacity appealed to the emotions of both the audience members and those who would read it later. Lincoln’s point was that those who died on the battlefield paid the ultimate price to defend the Union.

The second major theme in the speech was its appeal to Americans to continue the fight begun by the fallen soldiers. Lincoln uses a connection to the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. He reminds the audience of the passion the Founding Fathers (and all Americans) had for liberty and freedom, suggesting that the Civil War came into being because many of the people had forgotten the values of early America. By the summer of 1863, the war had had taken a turn in favor of the secessionists. Gettysburg was a victory against the Confederacy, but Americans, in the words of Lincoln, needed to build on that victory by continuing to fight until the war was over.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history. Brief but powerful, the speech provided both comfort and inspiration to the audience. It inspired them to appreciate what had occurred at Gettysburg and to take part in the reunification and reconciliation of the fractured United States.

Bibliography
  • Beschloss, Michael, and Hugh Sidey. “Abraham Lincoln.” White House. White House Historical Assn., 2009. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
  • Edwards, Owen. “Gettysburg Address Displayed at Smithsonian.” Smithsonian. Smithsonian, Dec. 2008. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
  • “Gettysburg.” Civil War Trust. Civil War Trust, 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
  • “The Gettysburg Address Text.” Visit-Gettysburg.com. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
  • “Lesson 3: The Gettysburg Address (1863)–Defining the American Union.” National Endowment for the Humanities. National Endowment for the Humanities, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
  • “Lincoln, Abraham.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.
Additional Reading
  • Barone, Michael, and Gerald Parshall. “Who Was Lincoln?” US News and World Report 27 Sept. 1992. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.
  • Boritt, Gabor. The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows. New York: Simon, 2008. Print.
  • Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston: Mariner, 2004. Print.
  • Wills, Garry. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon, 2006. Print.
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