By Dr. Christian McWhirter
The Gettysburg Address is the most well-known political speech ever written in the English language. This means almost everyone has heard it at least once, but it also means the speech is like a popular song that’s so overplayed it becomes background noise.
We can start rescuing the Gettysburg Address from the consequences of its ubiquity by considering its original context. Lincoln delivered his two-minute opus on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and it reads best as an elegy for the soldiers who fought there.
Lincoln begins by invoking the Declaration of Independence through his famous “four score” opening. In so doing, he connects the war against the insurgent confederacy with the founding of America and its ideals, especially the maxim that “all men are created equal,” which he quotes directly.
The ALPLM’s handwritten version of the Gettysburg Address will be on display Nov. 18-28. (ALPLM)
This may seem like a given to us, but it carried some controversy, as both the United States and the confederacy claimed to represent the founders’ true vision. For Lincoln’s part, he had argued since at least the 1850s that the Declaration was a fundamental element of American political culture. By the time he gave the Gettysburg Address, he believed he’d brought the nation closer to that ideal by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln then shifts from his broader examination of America’s ideals to “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.” He first wants us to appreciate the enormity of their sacrifice — conceding it is impossible for him or anyone else present on November 19 to “consecrate” or “hallow” the battlefield. “These honored dead” (about 3,100 U. S. soldiers) already did so by giving “the last full measure of devotion.”
Instead, Lincoln asks his audience to both preserve the memory of “what they did here” and dedicate themselves “to the great task remaining before us.” That task, Lincoln concludes, is to preserve the nation created by the Declaration — one committed to “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet he goes further, suggesting America will also be refined through “a new birth of freedom” — perhaps anticipating a future without slavery.
We now know too that these words were not just political posturing but products of careful consideration and self-reflection. Contrary to popular myth, Lincoln did not write the Gettysburg Address on a scrap of paper during his train ride from Washington, but there is evidence he was still revising the speech the day he delivered it.
That morning, Lincoln had visited the landscape around the town where he saw scenes of valor and witnessed signs of carnage still evident four months after the battle. In his enlightening book “Writing the Gettysburg Address,” historian Martin P. Johnson speculates this visit inspired Lincoln to redraft the speech to focus more on the heroism and sacrifice of the soldiers fighting to preserve and expand American freedom.
Some of the thousands who died at the Battle of Gettysburg.
The history of Gettysburg is full of such stories, and Lincoln heard some of them before and during his visit. For me, one of the most meaningful is that of the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment.
On the battle’s second day, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia attacked George Meade’s Army of the Potomac on both flanks to dislodge it from the high ground south of town. U. S. soldiers repulsed these assaults at now-famous places like Culp’s Hill, the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top.
Nevertheless, by dusk about 1,700 Alabamians were approaching Cemetery Ridge. General Winfield Scott Hancock had been coordinating the U. S. defense and rode to see who stood to oppose the coming confederates. Finding only one battle-depleted regiment of about 260 soldiers — the veteran 1st Minnesota — he lamented “My God! Are these all the men we have here?”
The answer was yes, but time was on Hancock’s side. Knowing he had only to delay the confederates long enough for the sun to go down, but fearful they would quickly overwhelm the defending Minnesotans, he made an unconventional decision. Hancock ordered the Minnesotans not to stand their ground, but to march out toward the Alabamians, hoping this would surprise and slow the coming onslaught.
Hardened veterans who had been with the Army of the Potomac since the First Battle of Bull Run, the men of the 1st Minnesota obeyed the order without hesitation, even though they surely knew it was desperate and likely fatal.
A painting of the 1st Minnesota in action, by Rufus Zogbaum. (Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society)
The tactic worked, leaving the Alabamians too disorganized to continue the assault in time. The cost, however, was immense. Only about fifty members of the 1st Minnesota returned to Cemetery Ridge. All its officers were lost. The regiment suffered 68 percent casualties over three days of fighting—the largest percentage of any regiment.
The Gettysburg Address is a brief but powerful meditation on bravery and loss in defense of a higher ideal. It centers on Lincoln’s invocation of “the last full measure of devotion” from soldiers, like those of the 1st Minnesota, who helped save and redefine American freedom on that bloody Pennsylvania landscape.
Christian McWhirter is the Lincoln Historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
The ALPLM’s edition of the Gettysburg Address will be on display November 18-28. More information about the document can be found here. Follow the ALPLM on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.