This week marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was the turning point of the American Civil War.

Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston South Carolina, April 12, 1861. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. It remains the deadliest war in American history, an estimated 750,000 soldiers and an undetermined number of civilian casualties.

Historian John Huddleston estimates the death toll at ten percent of all Northern males 20–45 years old, and 30 percent of all Southern white males aged 18–40. The South had better generals: Robert E. Lee of Virginia and others. The North had industrial power and sheer numbers.

The Gettysburg Address

It was given by President Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Cemetery, November 19, 1863. His invitation: “It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks .”

It was an era of eloquent speeches – Lincoln’s plainspoken style was already famous from the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Feverish and weak, with a severe headache, likely suffering from a mild case of smallpox, Lincoln gave “the greatest and most famous speech ever delivered on American soil,” according to William Bennett, former Secretary of Education.

Here are the now-famous words of Abraham Lincoln:

“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.
“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 battle-field 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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not 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 world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
“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 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.”

Reaction was mixed

See the pictures in the pdf file

for more on the Civil War and for reaction in the newspapers of the day. Note that the Chicago paper that thought it was silly no longer exists.

Abraham Lincoln, most quoted U.S. President

• 1860: “I want every man to have a chance and I believe a black man is entitled to it.”
• 1861: “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”
• Signed the Homestead Act in 1863
• Only President to hold a U.S. Patent
• When a delegation of Methodist clergy visited the White House and told him, “We will prevail because God is on our side,” he answered, “The question should always be are we on His side?”

For further study

• Across Five Aprils novel
• Uncle Tom’s Cabin
• Read letters and articles from that time period
• “Glory” movie about black troops in Civil War
• Lincoln movie: Emancipation Proclamation
• Wikipedia article about Civil War has links to other references
• Sounding Forth the Trumpet examines spiritual aspects of 1837-1860 time period