In 2002, the National Archives and Records Administration, National History Day, and U.S. News and World Report sponsored The People’s Vote, asking Americans to vote for 10 of the 100 Milestone Documents. Unsurprisingly, three documents from President Lincoln’s administration made the Top 10 Milestone Documents list – the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. The latter is our focus here.
Although the Gettysburg Address took President Lincoln only two minutes to deliver, the speech lives in collective American memory. Few enter the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) unable to recite the opening line. Knowing this, why revisit how we teach the speech?
Because of the speech’s popularity, and its place in American memory, it is easy to fall into teaching myth or to single out parts of the speech without providing students adequate context to understand the significance of the speech at the time—and its legacy over time. By providing a curated collection of records from the ALPLM’s holdings, as well as the necessary context to teach these records, we hope to enrich student understanding of the Gettysburg Address.
The Battle of Gettysburg
After the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under the leadership of General Robert E. Lee, defeated the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, General Lee went on the offensive, marching North in June 1863. The Union responded to this invasion by sending the Army of the Potomac under General George Meade’s command; the two armies clashed in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on July 1, 1863. Comprised of approximately 150,000-200,000 soldiers, the armies fought a brutal battle through July 3, 1863. The battle ended when Pickett’s Charge, an assault ordered by General Lee to break the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, failed. General Lee ordered the retreat of the Confederate Army on July 4, 1863 and General Meade decided not to pursue the retreating troops.
The Battle of Gettysburg lasted for three days and was the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. When the armies withdrew from Gettysburg, more than 40,000 casualties of the battle remained. Over the following weeks and months, the town, which had been overwhelmed by the battle, dealt with the aftermath of war. Weeks, even months, later, citizens continued to bury the remains of soldiers and animals who had fought in the battle, while dealing with the smells and effects of decay.
Dedicating the Cemetery
Attorney David Wills, a resident of Gettysburg whose home became the “center of the immense clean-up process after the Battle of Gettysburg,” worked with local leaders to establish the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, the first national cemetery in the United States, at the battlefield (National Park Service, 2019). Wills wrote President Lincoln on November 2, 1863, inviting him to “formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks” (Wills, 1863). In his letter, Wills made clear that Edward Everett, a former statesman, pastor, and recognized orator, would deliver the Oration; President Lincoln would be there to dedicate the cemetery and, as Commander in Chief, lend his presence to the event. In a second letter sent the same day, Wills also invited the President to stay in his home. President Lincoln accepted both invitations and arrived in Gettysburg on the night of November 18, 1863. Although he had likely been working on it for some time, it is in Wills’ home that the President finished his speech (National Park Service, 2019).
The procession of dignitaries assembled outside of Wills’ home at 10:00 a.m. and moved through the town to the cemetery. The program of events included music, prayers, Everett’s speech, and the President’s dedication remarks. Everett, a well known and respected orator, spoke for two hours, without notes, as the audience listened intently (Wilmer, 2013).
By contrast, when President Lincoln delivered his dedication, he spoke for only a few minutes. Although short at 272 words, the President’s speech was directly rooted in the circumstances of the battle. He understood the cemetery and dedication reflected the enormous and costly sacrifice precipitated by the battle. In the speech, President Lincoln acknowledged the active sense-making and searching for deeper meaning associated with a war that was causing substantial suffering and had lasted much longer and been much bloodier than almost anyone predicted. Further, President Lincoln placed the struggle for union in a global context, arguing that the future of democracy lay in the American experiment. Confederate victory, in Lincoln’s mind, meant the failure of the American experiment and failure of global democracy.
Although he never directly addressed slavery, perhaps an odd circumstance after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation earlier in the year, the President emphasized American male equality and described Northern victory as bringing about “a new birth of freedom” (Lincoln, 1863). For Lincoln, the war was a key component to transforming America into something new – a democratic country in which all men, regardless of race, were truly free.
Reactions to the Speech
After the dedication ceremony, both Everett’s and President Lincoln’s speeches were reprinted in newspapers around the country. Reactions to the speech were, unsurprisingly, divided on political grounds. In the days and weeks following the speech, southern newspapers attacked it, while northern opinions largely reflected party lines with Republicans praising and Democrats rebuking the speech.
Even though he was the recognized “celebrity” at the event, Edward Everett wrote the President the following day to express his “admiration” for the President’s “[eloquence], simplicity, and appropriateness,” stating “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes” (Everett, 1863).
The Everett Copy of the Gettysburg Address
The ALPLM’s copy of the Gettysburg Address comes from Edward Everett. In early 1864, Everett asked President Lincoln to write the speech – he intended to bind the Address to his own speech and sell them at the New York City sanitary fair to raise money for wounded Civil War soldiers (Schroeder-Lein, 2014). Interestingly, Everett, who “recognized the brilliance of Lincoln’s remarks…made no reference to them on the cover” (Cornelius and Knorowski, 2016, p. 88). Further, he characterizes his speech as the “Address” even though President Lincoln’s remarks are those recognized as the “Address” today (Cornelius and Knorowski, 2016).
The bound speeches remained in the hands of private collectors until 1944 when Illinois schoolchildren donated pennies and nickels to buy the artifact. The children, supplemented by a donation from Marshall Field III, raised the funds necessary to purchase Everett’s book for $60,000, which was then presented to the Illinois State Historical Library (now ALPLM) (Schroeder-Lein, 2014). Upon receipt, the Library separated the Gettysburg Address from Everett’s speech; visitors can see the Gettysburg Address for a short period each year around the anniversary of its delivery.
Resources for Teachers
Review Teaching Resources
The ALPLM, in partnership with the Abraham Lincoln-Horace Mann Fellows and the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, created The Gettysburg Address Teacher Resource Guide (link to Gettysburg Address in Lesson Plan section). The guide includes contextual information and three lesson plans to teach the Gettysburg Address.
For tips on how to teach the Gettysburg Address, read ASCD’s InService blog post “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Eight Teaching Tips on History, the Power of Words, and Character.”
Compare Different Versions
Constitution Daily, The National Constitution Center’s blog, compares six known versions of the Gettysburg Address, including the five surviving copies in Lincoln’s hand and the AP version. “Read Six Different Versions of the Gettysburg Address” highlights differences among the copies and allows students to easily see small changes between the documents.
Evaluate Language and Themes
The American Battlefield Trust’s Abraham Lincoln’s Greatest Speech lesson plan encourages students to evaluate the Gettysburg Address using the contexts of place and time. Be sure to check out the supplemental materials that highlight language and themes within the speech.
Examine Contemporary Responses
Cornell University, owner of one of the five copies of the Gettysburg Address, provides several examples of contemporary responses to the Address in the “Ideas are Always More Than Battles” section of their online Gettysburg Address exhibit.
Challenge Students to Assemble the Gettysburg Address
Using the Bliss copy, the ALPLM created the Gettysburg Address Puzzle. The puzzle provides students the opportunity to assemble the Gettysburg Address and includes extension activities to solidify student learning.
Cornelius, J. M., & Knorowski, C. (2016). Under Lincoln’s hat: 100 objects that tell the story of his life and legacy. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press.
Faust, D. G. (2008). This republic of suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
McPherson, J. (1988). Battle cry of freedom: The Civil War era. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
National Park Service. (2019, September 19). David Wills house. Gettysburg National Military Park. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/david-wills-house.htm
Widmer, T. (2013, November 19). The other Gettysburg address. Opinionator. [Web blog]. Retrieved from https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/the-other-gettysburg-address/?mtrref=www.bing.com&assetType=REGIWALL