The Gettysburg Address: 10 sentences never forgotten
By Stephan Drew
Nov. 19 will mark the 158th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle in our Civil War. Approximately 50,000 were wounded, missing or killed in action during those three days in early July 1863. The fields and woods of Gettysburg, Pa., were littered with the corpses of men who had fought each other to influence the direction of this great land. Their blood soaked the earth and body parts lay scattered all around. Because there was not a lot of time after the battle, those who were buried were buried hastily, in shallow graves. The smell of death and rotting corpses permeated the air for weeks and many limbs were later dug up by local animals, some even brought to their owner’s doorsteps. Something had to be done, not only to rid the countryside of the stench and remains but also to honor the sacrifices of the dead. It was decided that 17 acres would be set aside as a cemetery and place of remembrance. A man named Samuel Weaver was hired to remove and reinter the bodies, at a cost of $1.59 per corpse. He moved and reburied over 3,500 dead soldiers and his work was still incomplete when the ceremony took place many weeks later. A committee was formed and, in October 1863, a local attorney named David Wills invited President Abraham Lincoln to speak at the dedication the following month. Lincoln was not the keynote speaker. That honor went to Edward Everett, a very talented and well-known orator of the time. In his letter to Lincoln, Wills said, “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.” Little did he know how those “few remarks” would echo throughout history. Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg by train on Nov. 18 and stayed at the Wills house for the night, where he was surrounded by the townspeople requesting a speech. He had prepared no words for such an impromptu occasion, simply smiling, waving and offering just a few comments to the crowd. The next day, the dedication service began. After some music and prayers, Everett began his oration (entitled “The Battles of Gettsyburg”), and continued speaking … for two hours. There followed a consecration hymn and then Lincoln rose to speak: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon 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 it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. 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 hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while 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.” Lincoln did not think his words would be long remembered. After Everett’s eloquent oration, the president felt no one would take much notice to his own meager remarks. It was only 10 sentences, 271 words. But this nation and the entire world have remembered them for 158 years. After the ceremony, when asked what he thought of the president’s remarks, Everett replied, “He said it better in two minutes than I did in two hours.” Although Everett’s speech was the “official” address of the occasion, the remarks Lincoln gave that day have come to be known as THE Gettysburg Address. It moves and inspires us even to this day. And the words still ring true. America was described by our founders as “that noble experiment,” always growing, always changing, hopefully for the better each time. It is not complete. The work is not finished. We have progressed a long, long way but we are not perfect. There is still much to do. Lincoln knew the task may never be completed. But the dedication to our founding principles is a struggle that must go on. Always striving to be greater, to do better, and to maybe, finally fulfill those promises made so long ago. On this anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I hope we will all rededicate ourselves to achieving that dream and make this a “more perfect union” for us all.