Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln at Gettysburg

The Gettysburg Address, now regarded as one of the most important speeches in United States history, was the written creation of one man and was not universally praised upon its delivery.


5 - 12


Social Studies, U.S. History, Storytelling


Lincoln Gettysburg Crowd

The short length of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address was unusual for the time. It was preceded by a two-hour long speech. Despite this, Lincoln's speech has had an impact that has lasted to this day.

Photograph from the U.S. Library of Congress
The short length of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address was unusual for the time. It was preceded by a two-hour long speech. Despite this, Lincoln's speech has had an impact that has lasted to this day.
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Today, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is legendary. It is possibly the most famous statement by a United States president. However, on November 16, 1863, the famous speech did not yet exist as we know it. Nor did it impress everyone who heard it at the time.

The Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg took place in Pennsylvania in July 1863. It was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. The Civil War was fought from 1861 to 1865 between the northern and southern states over slavery. The northern states were also known as the Union, and the southern states were known as the Confederacy. At Gettysburg, over 50,000 soldiers were killed or wounded. Thousands of soldiers were buried in shallow graves.

Eventually, these graves fell into bad condition. Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania arranged to set apart a portion of the battlefield for a national cemetery. It would be a place to house and honor the dead Union soldiers. The cemetery was to be dedicated on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the battle.

Hard Work on a Short Speech

President Abraham Lincoln agreed to give a short speech at the dedication ceremony. A famous speaker named Edward Everett was to give the main speech. On November 17, 1863.

Lincoln spent time writing his remarks at the White House.

The next day, Lincoln traveled by train to Gettysburg. He stayed at the home of David Wills, who had suggested the idea of creating the cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln asked to be alone for a time and continued work on the speech.

The dedication ceremonies began on November 19, 1863, with a procession from the town to the graveyard. Lincoln and Everett took their places upon a platform. Then the prayers and speeches began.

Saying a Lot with a Few Words

Everett gave a polished speech, opening with a mention of the defense of Athens in ancient Greece. Speaking from memory, he described the progress of the battle in detail. Everett compared the war to various historical rebellions in Europe. He then reiterated the importance of victory to the Union. His audience was reported to maintain "breathless silence." Then, President Lincoln arose and made his brief remarks, concluding the ceremony.

The next day, Everett wrote to Lincoln to compliment him on the speech. He had "great admiration" for the president's words. The speaker was especially impressed by how Lincoln was able to say so much in such a short speech.

Not everyone was equally impressed by the speech. Across the nation, the newspaper editors of the day had strong opinions about the president's words. They either admired or dismissed Lincoln's speech, depending upon their political views. The Chicago Tribune wrote that Lincoln's remarks would go down in history. Meanwhile, the competing Chicago Times described the president's words as "silly, flat, and dishwatery." The Providence Journal wrote that Lincoln's address could not have been a "more admirable speech." However, the Harrisburg Patriot and Union called it "silly." The paper retracted this assessment in 2013 upon the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg dedication.

Two Copies of the Speech Survive

After Lincoln's death, his private papers passed to his secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The papers included two copies of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's handwriting. Each has slightly different wording. These copies came to be known as the Nicolay copy and the Hay copy. Lincoln made three other copies during his lifetime. Beginning in the 1870s, historians argued over which copy was the original draft. Most now agree that the "Nicolay copy" was the earliest draft. Lincoln began writing it at the White House, revised it in Gettysburg, and carried it in his hand while he spoke.

The Nicolay and Hay copies are stored in the Library of Congress. They are protected by advanced technology, including an argon gas atmosphere. This technology prevents the paper from decaying. Lincoln's words survive in countless print and digital copies too. They also survive in the minds of the many Americans who can recite the speech from memory.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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