There are some ideas that have been spoken and written by American leaders that have become woven into the very core of the American identity. The words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, are some of the most powerful.
Let’s dive in and learn more about the Gettysburg Address, and what led Lincoln to declare that America is a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Gettysburg is a small town in Pennsylvania, on the border with Maryland. On July 1, 1863, it blasted into history as the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, and a turning point in the fight.
In the days leading up to the battle, Confederate soldiers occupied the town of about 2,500. The battle crossed right through the city, with little regard for the civilians who lived there. Remarkably, only one civilian death was recorded: a woman killed by a stray bullet.
News of the battle quickly traveled across the country. To this day, the small borough is one of the most famous places in the United States.
Cyclorama at the Visitor’s Center
The battle at Gettysburg lasted three miserable days and involved nearly 200,000 men. A French artist Paul Philippoteaux created a cyclorama, a circular work of art, depicting Pickett’s Charge, the last push of the battle before the Confederates retreated. It is a stunning and educational work that can be viewed in the recently-upgraded visitor’s center.
The visitor’s center is a great place to stop and learn about the battle, get a feel for the size and scope of the events, and get a map before beginning a driving tour of the actual battle, which covers about 10 square miles.
The battle started early in the morning on July 1, 1863 when Confederate soldiers moving through the area encountered advancing Union soldiers, and the fighting began. After an entire day, nothing much was determined and the soldiers hunkered down for the night.
Some of the worst, and bloodiest, fighting of the entire Civil War took place on July 2. Solders from both sides attacked and defended territory all around Gettysburg. If the Confederates could gain a foothold at Gettysburg, they could invade further into the North.
Efforts to flank (go around) the Union Army led to struggles at places such as Devil’s Den, where fighting broke out across rocky, uneven ground. Of the 5,525 Confederate troops in that struggle, 1,814 soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. Of the Union’s 2,423 soldiers, 821 were killed, wounded, or missing.
There were dozens of other sites on the battlefield that left as many wounded and dead: Peach Orchard, Wheatfields, and Culp’s Hill are a few sites famous for their bloody battles.
Little Round Top
The Union side was losing the struggle at Devil’s Den. From the vantage point on a small hill later known as Little Round Top, it was clear that Confederate troops were about to cut through the Union line and more soldiers were needed. A small group of soldiers from Maine, about 385, were told to “Hold the line at all costs” until others arrived. This meant they were expected to fight to the very last man.
After significant fighting, Union Colonel Chamberlain knew his men could not hold out much longer, so he ordered a brave and daring attack with bayonets. Amazingly, and with some help from other groups, the charge succeeded and the Union army was not encircled.
Now, Little Round Top is known as the site of one of the fiercest and bravest struggles in the entire war.
And yet, after two days of brutal fighting, no clear victor had emerged. Early on the morning of July 3, General Lee ordered one last charge against the Union line. First with cannon, then with soldiers, he ordered his generals, including Major General Pickett, to attack by running nearly a mile through an open field.
The soldiers suffered terrible casualties, with nearly half of the 12,000 soldiers killed or wounded. This charge, brave and bloody and useless, was the peak of the Confederacy, though it would take another two years for the war to end.
Gettysburg National Cemetery
After the battle, the town was left to clean up the mess of war. They were responsible for removing the abandoned equipment and burying the dead soldiers and animals.
The town residents, along with Pennsylvania state leaders, quickly decided to create a state-funded cemetery for the dead Union soldiers, aptly named “Soldiers Cemetery”. In it were buried 3,512 Union soldiers, including 979 unknown.
Later the cemetery, on the battlefield itself, became part of the national historical site, and was renamed “Gettysburg National Cemetery”. Soldiers from other wars have been buried here in more recent times.
On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg for the cemetery’s consecration. It’s unclear exactly where the president stood, but historians have settled on this place as the most likely for the gathering.
Lincoln was not the main speaker that day, and his two-minute speech was far short of the hours-long orations given by others. But when the words were printed in newspapers around the country, their true value was recognized.
Speaking about the battle, the war, and the struggle for freedom, Lincoln said “We here 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.”
May we too pledge that we will “never forget” the work advanced by these men, and the countless men and women who have fought for freedom elsewhere. And by our actions, ensure that freedom shall not perish from the earth.