Gettysburg Anniversary: A Turning Point
Commemoration events have been three years in the planning at Gettysburg and include a battle re-enactment with 10,000 participants. While that is in July, particularly significant will be a commemoration by President Barack Obama. Obama is expected to rededicate Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, on Nov. 19, the same place and the same day it was delivered in 1863.
When the speech is rededicated by the first African-American president in the nation’s history, the poignancy of the moment will not be lost on America, or indeed the world. Obama will be acknowledging those that died to pave the way for his presence on the podium that day. It is also likely he will draw on the bigger themes of the address: equality, the Union, and democratic government.
The Gettysburg Address is the most widely quoted of any American speech, exalted for its simplicity and its powerful reach. The speech itself is tiny, not more that a few minutes long, consisting of only 10 sentences, around 270 words.
A rare original of the speech is drawing crowds at the Library of Congress in Washington, where it has just been put on display as part of the Civil War in America exhibit. The Hay copy is one of only five original versions of the speech, handwritten by Lincoln and given to John Hay, one of his personal secretaries.
For Becky Alexander, in the library to see the exhibition with her father, Jim, phrases like “all men are created equal” still ring in her ears from school days. They have not lost their resonance.
“It continues to crop up with different groups today,” she said, “It still feels relevant.”
For Jim Alexander, it was a reminder how much the Civil War changed the course of history and that it was not solely about slavery.
“It was really fought over states’ rights initially and to prevent the expansion of slavery,” he said.
Battle of Gettysburg
It was the third year of the American Civil War when the Confederate Army confronted the Union Army at Gettysburg, a tiny Pennsylvania town just over 80 miles from the Union capital, Washington, D.C.
When the battle began, the sound of cannon fire was so loud it made soldiers’ ears bleed and could be heard in towns over 30 miles away.
Over 7,000 soldiers were killed in the battle that went for three days from July 1 to July 3, 1863. Over 50,000 soldiers were wounded, more than in any other battle of the war.
Although fighting continued for another two years, the battle at Gettysburg is considered by many historians to have been a turning point. Confederate forces never made it that far north again.
Dealing with so many dead and wounded was out of the realm of experience for any American, let alone for a small town the size of Gettysburg. It was decided to bury and honor the dead in a national cemetery at the site of the battle. It was at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, five months after the battle, that Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous speech.
Hardly a popular figure two years into a brutal war, Lincoln’s beautifully crafted speech was almost an afterthought on that November day, a few appropriate remarks to follow the main event, a two-hour speech by celebrated orator Edward Everett. But for Lincoln, the speech was an opportunity to speak directly to a broad audience about why the war was important and why the bloodshed was not in vain.
“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,” the speech reads.
Michelle Krowl, Civil War historian at the Library of Congress, believes Lincoln made the speech short and precise purposefully, so that it could be easily quoted and covered on the front page of newspapers.
Lincoln, who barely mentioned the battle, was speaking to higher ideals, aiming not just at the assembled crowd before him but at “the larger nation and the world beyond.”
He saw the war not only as a fight to preserve the Union but to protect the principles on which the nation was founded, she said.
For countries around the world coming out of autocratic rule at the time, he believed it was important to show that self-government and democratic republics could work.
“If the United States couldn’t win the Civil War and it breaks up, that experiment has failed,” Krowl said.
Indeed, the Gettysburg Address is the most widely translated of all American speeches, printed in a range of languages, including Latin. “It is inspiring wherever you are from, people understand these larger principles,” she said.
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