On November 19, 1863, at the dedication of a military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln delivered what's considered one of the most memorable speeches in American history. In fewer than 300 words, Lincoln articulated why the Union was engaged in the bloody conflict and what was at stake if the North didn't come out victorious.
The Battle of Gettysburg, fought roughly four months earlier, was the single bloodiest battle of the Civil War. More than 45,000 men were killed, injured, captured or went missing over the course of three days. The battle also proved to be the key turning point of the war: General Robert E. Lee’s defeat and retreat from Gettysburg signaled the last Confederate invasion of Northern territory and the beginning of the end for the Confederates.
An attorney named David Wills bought 17 acres of pasture to turn into a cemetery for the more than 7,500 who died. Wills invited Edward Everett, one of the most renowned orators of the day, to deliver a speech at the cemetery’s dedication. Almost as an afterthought, Wills also sent Lincoln a letter—just two weeks before the ceremony—asking if he could provide “a few appropriate remarks."
At the dedication, the crowd listened for two hours to Everett before Lincoln delivered his address, which lasted just a couple of minutes. The speech reflected his redefined belief that the Civil War was not merely a fight to save the Union, but a struggle to ensure freedom and equality for everyone, an idea Lincoln had not espoused in the years preceding the war.
Initially, reception of Lincoln's address was lukewarm at best. Nonetheless, the “little speech,” as Lincoln later referred to it, is thought by many today to be the most eloquent and profound speeches ever written in America's rich history.