Between April 30 to May 6, 1863, Union General Joseph Hooker engaged Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville, Virginia. Hooker had managed to move his troops to attack Lee’s flank, but Lee countered Hooker’s move by sending some of his troops to attack Hooker’s exposed flank. In the battle, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded, but the Confederate strategy proved successful and Hooker eventually had to retreat. After the defeat at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, Hooker resigned his command of the Union Army of the Potomac.
On June 24, 1863, Lee launched his second invasion into Union territory, crossing the Potomac River and heading north to Pennsylvania.
On June 28 1863, Union General George Meade was assigned the command of the Union Army of the Potomac. Meade had joined Hooker’s command a year earlier, replacing General John Reynolds. He led a division of the Army of the Potomac at the Battles of South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, so he was familiar with the army he had been given command, which was to be tested quite soon.
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Meade moved his army north from Washington DC to head off Lee’s advance into Pennsylvania. Fortunately for Meade, Confederate General Jeb Stuart had left his position of guarding Lee’s flank, going on a raid of his own. Had he remained, he would have been able to report Meade’s advance to Lee, but instead, Lee knew little of Meade’s movements. Eventually, a scout reported Meade’s advance to Lee, who responded by gathering his army just outside the small southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, population of about 2,400. The Confederates saw Gettysburg as a strategic location since there were about a dozen roads that converged on the town.
On June 30, 1863, a Confederate infantry brigade began to head into Gettysburg to gather much needed shoes. The commander of the brigade spied Union troops heading into Gettysburg so withdrew the shoe raid. After reporting the sighting to his superior who passed the information up the chain of command, the commander decided that his troops would go after the shoes the first thing the next morning.
On July 1, 1863, Meade and Lee met at Gettysburg. Meade’s army consisted of about 93,700 troops with 372 cannons. Lee’s forces were about 70,100 troops and 280 cannons.
Early in the morning, two divisions of Confederates set off for Gettysburg to get the shoes. On their way, they encountered Union troops just outside of Willoughby Run, starting the bloodiest three days ever on American soil.
Over the next three days, the Union and Confederate troops clashed in and around Gettysburg and Cemetery Hill. The air was filled with the smoke from cannons, rifle and musket fire. In some areas, the ground was hidden from view because of the number of dead and wounded lying on the battlefield.
Meade’s forces held off the Confederate charges and eventually drove them back. The Battle of Gettysburg was a decisive victory for the Union and General Meade.
After the fighting had ended, just over 23,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded or missing. Lee’s forces, which were smaller at the onset suffered heavier casualties with just over 28,000 dead, wounded or missing. With over 51,000 casualties. Gettysburg was the by far the bloodiest and costliest single battle in the history of America and all of North America.
On this day, November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the horrendous Battle of Gettysburg, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was dedicated. First to take the podium to speak to the crowd was Edward Everett, former Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Governor of Massachusetts, US Representative from Massachusetts, US Senator from Massachusetts and Secretary of State under President Millard Fillmore. He was also an educator and pastor and known at the time for his oratory skills. Everett spoke to the crowd for 2 hours.
Next to take the podium was a weary and heavy burdened President Abraham Lincoln who spoke 272 words in less than 3 minutes. His speech is now one of the most famous speeches in American history and was taught in most public schools when I was a student. Lincoln’s words still echo in many hearts and minds:
“Fourscore 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.”
‘Four score and seven years ago’ refers to 1776 and the brave act of independence that our fathers brought forth on the nation and the statement in the Declaration of Independence that states:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal;”
Lincoln was directly using that statement to refer to slaves as well as every other man.
Note that in his speech, Lincoln stated ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.’ Little did Lincoln realize that his ‘Little Speech’ as he later referred to it, would be better remembered than the bloody sacrifices made at Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863. Lincoln personally bore the weight of every soldier, Union or Confederate, who died, was wounded or went missing, at Gettysburg. In fact, he personally bore the weight of every casualty, Union and Confederate of the entire Civil War and that burden took a great toll on him.
There were five known manuscripts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He gave a copy to each of his two private secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. Both of these copies are now preserved in the Library of Congress. The other three copies were hand written by Lincoln after his speech was delivered. One of the remaining three copies was written and given to Everett upon his request. That copy is preserved at the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield, Illinois. George Bancroft, a historian requested a copy and the copy Lincoln penned for his is now preserved at Cornell University. The third copy, written by Lincoln for Bancroft’s stepson, Colonel Alexander Bliss. That copy is preserved in the Lincoln Room at the White House.
Sources for the above includes: Gettysburg Address; Today, July 1, 1863: Largest Military Battle in North America Begins; The Gettysburg Address; Four score and 70 years ago, the Gettysburg Address entered history; Lincoln Delivers Gettysburg Address; Abraham Lincoln: The Gettysburg Address; Gettysburg Address; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address