November 19, 1863, 157 year ago, just over four months after one of the deadliest, bloodiest, and defining battles of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
He spent the night in David Wills’s home in downtown Gettysburg, less than a mile away from the cemetery that would be dedicated the following day. In an upstairs room overlooking the center of town, Lincoln fine-tuned the 272 words that became the most well-known speech in American History.
More than 100,000 Union and Confederate soldiers combined had died during the three-day battle that commenced July 1, 1863. Wills, Lincoln’s host, was a local attorney entrusted with purchasing 17 acres for the state for a graveyard where more than 3,500 Union soldiers now rest. When it came time to dedicate the cemetery, Wills invited orator Edward Everett to give the keynote speech.
According to many accounts, Wills invited Lincoln as an afterthought and just a couple of weeks before the ceremony.
More than 20,000 people attended the dedication ceremony and listened as Everett spoke for roughly two hours. Then Lincoln spoke for about two minutes, delivering the words that remain revered to this day:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon 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 here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it 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 can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not 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 can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. 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 here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
When Lincoln finished, Everett approached him, saying, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
The National Parks Service now owns the Wills Home, which is a museum; and it also owns the cemetery itself. It was later expanded to include graves of veterans from the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.