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‘Gettysburg Address’ Echoes in American History

Most speeches by American presidents fade with time from people's memories. However, some have left indelible marks on history. One of the most famous is President Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," a two-minute speech that has inspired generations of Americans ever since. For producer Joseph Mok, Elaine Lu has the story.

The time was July 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War. The pivotal three-day battle at Gettysburg, in the northeast state of Pennsylvania, was one of the bloodiest of the war, inflicting great losses on both the southern Confederate and northern Union armies.

Shortly after the battle, the governor of Pennsylvania commissioned David Wills, an attorney, to purchase a proper burial site near the battlefield for several thousand of the Union soldiers killed. The 7.9-hectare cemetery was to be dedicated four months after the battle.

The famous politician and great orator Edward Everett would be the main speaker for the dedication ceremony. Governors from all the Union states were invited to the occasion set for November 19th.

A letter was also sent to the White House to invite President Abraham Lincoln to make a few remarks at the cemetery's dedication.

The current mayor of Gettysburg, William Troxell, tells of the day President Lincoln arrived in town. "Lincoln came in on the train on the 18th of November, walked to the train station we've restored. Then he walked up the circle to Wills’ house to spend the night there. There he finished writing the Gettysburg Address."

On the eve of the ceremony, the population of the small town of Gettysburg swelled to four times its size as people from around the country arrived for the event.

At the ceremony Edward Everest spoke for two hours. Then, in great contrast, President Lincoln delivered his now-famous remarks, a two-minute speech that not only remembered the battles fallen, but redefined the Civil War as a struggle not merely for the Union, but as "a new birth of freedom" that would bring true equality to all of its citizens.

Ron Hawkins is a Civil War reenactor and historian. "It changed the country from what it once was to what it is now,” said Hawkins. “A country of the people, by the people, for the people -- yes that had always been the case, but it had been the case in a collection of states, each state was its own government, it was its own nation. And this collection of states bound together to support itself, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare as was in the Constitution. But the binding has become permanent, and I'll say tighter, after this war, because now [the] U.S. [is] not considered a conglomeration, a joining of many little nations, it is now one nation made up of individual parts.

President Lincoln said "the world will little note, nor long remember" what was said at the ceremony. He never expected his Gettysburg Address would become one of most frequently quoted speeches and a classic piece of American history.

The Address is:
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.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place, for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting, and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated 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. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here, dedicated to the great 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.