Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg Address

Synopsis

The words of President Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address are as relevant and meaningful today as they were in 1863. This magnificent book is a stunning exploration of some of the most powerful words ever spoken in American history.

Excerpt

During the first three days of July 1863, the Civil War armies of the North and South slaughtered each other in the fields surrounding the town of Gettysburg. By the evening of the third day, fifty thousand people were killed, wounded, or missing. General Robert E. Lee had to leave his dead on the field when he retreated to the South. The various states of the Union wanted to carry their dead back home to churchyards and family plots for burial, but the governor of Pennsylvania had to forbid this in order to prevent the spread of disease.

All the Northern states were asked to contribute to a common cemetery for the Gettysburg dead -- a new exercise in cooperation. When it came time to dedicate the cemetery, the greatest orator of the time, Edward Everett, was asked to give a grand speech describing the battle and praising the Northern soldiers.

The president of the United States was also invited to speak at the formal opening of the gravesite. He would not deliver "the oration," according to the day's printed program; he would just make some brief "remarks." Abraham Lincoln prepared those remarks very carefully. Though he spoke for only three minutes, the crowd broke into applause five times. In 272 words he gave the battle a higher meaning. These men died, he said, to make Americans live up to their own beliefs -- the belief in human equality, in the possibility of self-government. The pledge made by Americans in the Declaration of Independence had to be met -- the pledge that "all men are created equal."

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address worked almost by magic, by incantation. It cast a spell. He held out a mystical vision of the spirit that should breathe through all our laws. It is the best example in history of the fact that nothing is more practical than idealism, that ideas matter, that words are more important than weapons.

Not only the Battle of Gettysburg, but the whole Civil War, means to us today what Lincoln said it must mean at that dark time of mourning for the dead. The nation, he believed, could be reborn out of those deaths; and it was.

-- GARRY WILLS

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