Study Guide

Gettysburg Address

By Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg Address Introduction

We're going to be honest: not a whole lot of great, fun things happened in the good ol' U.S.A. circa 1863. A lot of stuff happened…but most involved the brutal bloodfest of the American Civil War.

Here are a few of the highlights of peaceful activities:

  • Kansas State Agricultural College was established.
  • The submarine H. L. Hunley was first successfully tested.
  • Ground was broken on the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad.

Thrilling stuff, eh?

But the good news about 1863 is that it saw Honest Abe Lincoln do three awesome things. He signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He declared Thanksgiving an official holiday. And he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Well done, sir. We'll raise a spoonful of mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce in your honor.

And while no one, but no one, is disputing the insane importance of the Emancipation Proclamation, we're here to look into the workings of one of the most insanely famous speeches of all time.

What Gettysburg Address? 102 Gettysburg Lane?

Seven score and 16-odd years ago, some seriously long-simmering arguments finally boiled over and plunged the United States into war. War with itself.

And civil war, unlike what the name implies, is anything but civil. The conflict pitted brother against brother and friend against friend, and it stretched on for four years as people fought tooth and nail to protect their homes and their ways of life.

  

In the middle of the conflict, the time came for a battlefield cemetery to be dedicated. This was another in what must have felt like an unending string of solemn occasions over which the president was made to preside. Yeah, no one likes having to dedicate yet another battlefield cemetery. It's not like cutting the ribbon at a new cupcake bakery.

This one was different, though. (Different, but no less bleaktastic.) The Battle of Gettysburg had halted a Confederate Army threatening to huff, puff, and capture major Northern cities. The Union soldiers had been successful…but with high casualties on both sides, there was no sense of victory, just grieving.

Everyone's favorite vampire hunter—Abraham Lincoln—was at war for his entire presidency but never once sought to negotiate for peace with the Confederate States of America. Dude was no quitter. It was his belief that the United States had to remain whole.

And sure enough, when the dust settled this vision endured…and the way we conceived of ourselves was fundamentally shifted.

Before the war, it was said "the United States are." Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. And after the war, it was always "the United States is," as we say today without being self-conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an "is." (Source)

Thanks, Honest Abe.

One for the Ages

Over 10,000 people had crammed into the tiny town of Gettysburg to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers. They were treated to the stylings of Mr. Edward Everett, known as one of the best speakers America had to offer. After a blow-by-blow recounting of the Battle of Gettysburg, complete with references to famous ancient battles like Troy (pro tip: these class up just about any speech), Everett ceded the platform to President Lincoln.

He was only there for some brief remarks; at the time, Lincoln was sick with what historians say could have been smallpox. (Consider that next time you want to call in sick.) (Source)

Despite saying "the world will little note" (8) the speech, it immediately became a rallying point for the war-weary North. In fact, Senator Charles Sumner, while delivering Lincoln's eulogy a few short years later, stated that "the battle was less important than the speech itself." (Source)

Yeah. That means it was an incredibly influential speech. But you already knew that—we're willing to bet that, if someone jumped out at you in a dark alley and said, "Name one famous speech!" you would a) scream and b) say, "Um, the Gettysburg Address?"

And that's because the Gettysburg Address is one of the most patriotic and stirring speeches in American history, comparable with such works as Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" and President Bill Pullman's Independence Day speech.

The Voice Box Is Mightier Than the Sword

The one-two punch of Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg put the Confederacy on the defensive. By the time of Lincoln's speech in November, the writing was on the wall.

A week after the Gettysburg Address, the North broke the rebel siege of Chattanooga, a much-needed decisive victory. Then the hits just kept on rolling.

Ulysses S. Grant was given command of all Union forces. Coordinated campaigns developed into Gen. William Sherman's devastating March to the Sea. Soon, the idea of a Union victory became not a matter of if, but when.

Of course, it's impossible to say the Gettysburg Address served as the turning point in the Civil War by itself. After all, many battles still had to be fought before the Confederacy ultimately surrendered; the only real fights ended by words alone are on Twitter.

But along with some well-placed Union victories that pumped up the Northern public more than some '90s nostalgia Jock Jams, Lincoln's speech rallied the nation and enabled them to eventually win the war.

Not too shabby for two and a half minutes in the spotlight.

What is Gettysburg Address About and Why Should I Care?

Everyone and their mom has heard of the Gettysburg Address. After all, it's how we all learned exactly how much a "score" is.

And everyone knows who Honest Abe Lincoln was because he's definitely the most immediately recognizable U.S. president (no offense, Taft), what with his stovepipe hat steez and his tall-drink-of-water good looks.

And everyone knows about the Civil War because we've all cried over Cold Mountain and we've all spent family bonding time watching that Ken Burns doc with our grandparents (who have impeccable taste in documentary films but surprisingly weird taste in candy. Seriously, gramps: root beer barrels?).

But just because we know the words "Civil War," "Lincoln," and "the Gettysburg Address," that doesn't mean we've necessarily spent time thinking about just how insanely important they are to the lives we live today.

A world in which the Confederacy still exists, or where the Union was completely defeated, would be a super different place. Imagine an alternate America. An America where "Dixie" is our national anthem. Where people say "as American as pecan pie" instead of "as American as apple pie."

And—oh, yeah—where slavery is still legal.

Don't just read that. Try to really think about that insanely atrocious possibility.

While the scenario of a Confederate victory is firmly in the realm of revisionist history today, before the Battle of Gettysburg, it looked like a very real possible future for the United States.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of a war full of bloody battles, and so much death and destruction sapped the willpower of the public. The troops were tired. Civilians were tired. The war was a quagmire of depression, fear, and broken lives. Lincoln knew that without public support, the war would go nowhere, fast.

And Honest Abe didn't want that to happen. He didn't want that to happen so badly that he staggered onto a little stage in a little Pennsylvania town on a dreary day in November and gave a rousing two-minute speech…despite the fact that he had smallpox.

Yeah, Abe Lincoln made history a) in two minutes and b) while he was seriously ill. We can hardly make Cup Noodles when we have a runny nose.

It's not often that a speech makes history. But the Gettysburg Address was more than a speech. It was a shot in the arm. It was a wake-up call. It was a can of Red Bull that re-energized a nation and enabled the Union to win the war.

And it is—no joke—still perhaps the most inspiring bit of speech-making around today.

Gettysburg Address Resources

Websites

Learn the Address
As the title suggests, this website is dedicated to the Gettysburg Address and features scores of videos from the likes of Louis C.K. and George W. Bush giving their versions of the address.

Movie or TV Productions

Lincoln
Lincoln covers the president's struggle to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery once and for all. You can enjoy an excellent performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and his prosthetic nose.

Gettysburg
A faithful recreation of the infamous battle. Make sure you have nothing else on your schedule since it clocks in at four and a half hours.

The Civil War
Ken Burns means quality. This nine-part miniseries covers the entire Civil War with experts, photographs, and primary sources and includes both major players and everyday people. Well worth the watch.

Articles and Interviews

A Linc to the Past
Here you'll find a repository of every New York Times article discussing Lincoln…and his ever-present legacy.

Acting a Fool
In this satirical piece supposedly written by the man who played Lincoln in Lincoln, renowned thespian Daniel Day-Lewis* discusses his feelings on the man under the hat. *Not written by Daniel Day-Lewis.

Video

Ken Burns' Civil War
From renowned documentarian Ken Burns, this segment on the Gettysburg Address is a must-watch for any student of the Civil War.

"Fourscore and Seven References Ago…"
A compilation of pop culture references and recitations of the Gettysburg Address throughout the years. So many beards.

Images

Where's Lincoln?
Although there are a few pictures of Lincoln at Gettysburg, they aren't exactly like the photo ops we see today. He's harder to find than Waldo. But this cool interactive page from Smithsonian.com lets you dig a little deeper into these famous photos.