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Lincoln's Words at Gettysburg Resonate 150 Years Later

  • Deborah Block

Abraham Lincoln is shown in an October 1858 photograph by W.A. Thomson, taken in Monmouth, Illinois.

Abraham Lincoln is shown in an October 1858 photograph by W.A. Thomson, taken in Monmouth, Illinois.

One hundred and fifty years ago this month (November 19), at the height of the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered a short address at a battlefield in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The bloody battle that had taken place there several months earlier is now considered the turning point of the war. While dedicating a cemetery, Lincoln paid tribute to the soldiers who had fought at Gettysburg. He also laid stress on freedom and equality.

In his two-minute speech, President Lincoln recalled the fighting in Gettysburg, which took the lives of tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers. He honored “the brave men, living and dead who struggled here.” From 1861 to 1865, the Northern states - the Union, fought the South - the Confederacy, which had seceded from the nation over several issues, including slavery.

Martin Johnson, history professor at Miami University in Ohio, has written a new book called Writing the Gettysburg Address. He says the president sought continuing support for the Union as the civil war dragged on.

He said, “He knew he had to impress the nation with the importance of the cause, why this war was so important and so crucial."

Shortly before he went to Gettysburg, the president was at this cottage in Washington, where he would go to escape distractions at the White House. Callie Hawkins, program director at the renovated cottage, says this was no retreat, since a military cemetery was next door.

“It gave him an opportunity to think and reflect, and think through his ideas of the civil war and emancipation. Lincoln saw burials every day," she said.

Those ideas, Hawkins says, would have influenced his writing of the Gettysburg Address, which borrowed the line that “all men are created equal” from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Lincoln also spoke about “a new nation, conceived in liberty” and “a new birth of freedom.”

Lincoln's words resonate with 12-year-old Carrie Otal. She said, “He got us through the slavery, and freedom for everyone is very important. Slave owners thought they had the liberty of owning slaves, but slaves thought liberty meant freedom, and I think he gave everyone the liberty they deserve.”

Johnson says Lincoln wrote the address at the White House and then polished it at this home in Gettysburg. Word of the speech spread quickly.

“The speech became popular and important almost immediately because many people, especially editorialists in newspapers, and political figures, recognized that it condensed the lesson of the war in a very brief manner," he said. "Within months, it was used in political speeches. It became rooted very quickly in American memory about what the civil war meant."

He says the Gettysburg Address also became known worldwide.

“It’s taught in schools in Japan, Nigeria, Argentina and elsewhere," he said.

In his address, President Lincoln said “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Little did he know that not only would the world note and remember, but the speech would become one the most famous in history.

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