Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. So
President Abraham Lincoln began his Gettysburg Address at the November 19, 1863 dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Today, we nod our heads in approval at this first sentence. We believe such things as freedom, liberty and equality to be inherently American. Yet all of these beliefs were contested in the 1860’s America that Lincoln spoke to.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. Lincoln reminded his audience that a part of the nation believed so strongly that all men were not created equal, that slavery was part of the natural order, that they had seceded from the Union and a great war had ensued.
We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to consecrate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do so. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead have dedicated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here. When Lincoln spoke these words only a small number of the Union dead had been reinterred in the newly established cemetery. Some 7,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had been killed outright during the fighting on July 1– 3, and around another 3,000 had died of their wounds in the days and weeks that followed. They were buried near where they fell, often in shallow graves with temporary grave markers. Many of the Confederate dead were buried by the Union army after the battle. It was customary with both armies after a battle that whoever controlled the battlefield afterward did not exert any effort to identify the dead of the opposing army so they were generally buried in mass graves. So it was for hundreds of Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg.
Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin appointed a local attorney, David Wills, to act as a state agent to acquire land for a permanent cemetery for the Union dead. With the help of another Gettysburg attorney, David McCounaughy, 17 acres were purchased on Cemetery Hill, adjacent to the local Evergreen Cemetery. David Wills secured the services of William Saunders, of the Department of Agriculture, to complete a landscape design, and contracted for the re-interment of the Union dead. In early November, Wills sent a formal invitation to the president and requested that as part of the ceremony that he deliver “a few appropriate remarks.”
Lincoln recognized the significance of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery dedication as a rare opportunity for him to speak to the nation about the war. In an era before television and radio, events that received national press coverage did not occur often.
On the morning of the ceremony a huge crowd of some 15-20,000 people gathered.
It is for us the living, rather, to be here dedicated to the great unfinished 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 directed his conclusion at the living. The dead had already hallowed the ground at Gettysburg. Now the living needed to assure that they had not died in vain. The task remaining was twofold – that the nation might have a new birth of freedom, free from the scourge of slavery, and that the government the Founding Fathers had created would not perish.
The vision and future Lincoln charted was hard because it challenged deep seated prejudices and thinking. The nation was not suddenly transformed by his Gettysburg Address and all its ills magically lifted. But his speech gradually became what he may have hoped for – a North Star for the country, a direction to aspire to and work toward. It continues to inspire us to this day.
Gettysburg National Military Park is a unit of the National Park Service that preserves and protects the resources associated with the battle of Gettysburg and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, and provides an understanding of the events that occurred there within the context of American History. Information is available at www.nps.gov/gett.
 The Confederate dead, except for a small number retrieved by family members after the battle and after the war, were removed from the field in the early 1870’s and reburied in several Southern cemeteries. The largest number went to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.