On a crisp autumn day in mid-November 1863, Abraham Lincoln stepped off a train he had taken from Washington City to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where a turning point battle had been fought just four and a half months earlier. Lincoln came to dedicate a new soldier’s cemetery and a crowd of 15,000 poured into the small town of 2,400 residents to observe the ceremony. Some citizens of Gettysburg said that the smell of death had only just recently left the surrounding landscape where unburied men and horses had tainted the farmland air.
Before Lincoln spoke to the assembled crowd, Edward Everett took the platform. Everett, a man with blue-chip credentials – US Representative, Senator, Governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain, US Secretary of State, and President of Harvard University – spoke for two hours, never referring to notes or a prepared speech before he concluded and took his seat. Next a band played a hymn, especially composed for the occasion by B.B. French. Then the President came forward to speak.
Spectators who were expecting another lengthy oration, in the manner of Everett, were shocked when Lincoln spoke a mere 272 words in two and a half minutes. Many in the audience withheld applause thinking that the President was merely pausing, not concluding his talk. The fortunate 15,000 had just witnessed one of the most celebrated and moving speeches of all time.
In April 1865, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner said after Lincoln’s death: “That speech, uttered out on the fields of Gettysburg … and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said, ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it.”
Listen to the speech at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvA0J_2ZpIQ