American Civil War for Kids and Teachers, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Illustration

American Civil War
The Gettysburg Address

In 1863, two years before the Civil War ended, it was decided by the Union government to declare the battlefield at Gettysburg a national cemetery to honor fallen Civil War soldiers. A committee was set up to organize the dedication ceremony. They invited President Lincoln to attend and say a few appropriate words. The committee did not expect Lincoln to accept their invitation. But he did.

The night before the dedication, Lincoln jotted down some quick notes of what he wanted to say. He had been very busy with affairs of state. He was worried about his young son, who had fallen ill that day with the same fever that had killed Lincoln's son Willie 20 months earlier.

At the dedication, the main speaker spoke for 2 hours. President Lincoln's speech followed. Lincoln, in front of a gathering of about 20,000 people, stood and spoke for 2 minutes 15 seconds. Lincoln did not speak of the Union, the South, slavery or emancipation. He spoke of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the principals of which had still not found their way into the Constitution. He spoke of a "new birth of freedom" and "unfinished work", and a national commitment to the cause that these soldiers had died to advance, that being to elevate the ideals of the Declaration of Independence into law, "that all men are created equal".

After Lincoln spoke, there was a light scattering of applause. And that was it. It was not that people agreed or disagreed. Many were possibly not even listening. People had stood for hours. It had been a long, crowded, and emotional dedication. The next day, some newspaper responses to the President's speech were positive, other were negative. Few people seemed to understand that with this speech Lincoln had committed the Nation to achieving momentous new law. That same speech today is called one of the most memorable speeches in our history. Lincoln's speech was composed of 10 sentences. Those ten sentences are collectively called the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln said:   

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 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 that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a large 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, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Gettysburg Address (Learning Discovery)

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