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The Gettysburg Address - setting and context

The Battle of Gettysburg marked a turning point in the Civil War, with Union forces repelling a second Southern invasion. Despite heavy casualties, this victory signaled the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered months later, renewed the nation's commitment to the war and set the blueprint for reunification.

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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] Alright, so we left off with The Battle of Gettysburg, from July 1st to 3rd, 1863. And as I mentioned in the last video, Gettysburg was a really significant battle in the Civil War. It was a real turning point for the Civil War, at which Lee brought the forces of the South up into the North for a second attempt at an invasion, and once again, was turned away by the forces of Union General, George Meade. Gettysburg was the most destructive battle of the Civil War, there were about 50,000 casualties, and it, along with the victory of The Siege of Vicksburg, which followed the day after, on July 4th, really start to signify the beginning of the end of the Confederacy's bid for independence. Now, what you may not know about The Battle of Gettysburg, is that is was almost the end of the war, in fact, Lee took his army, trying to cross back over the Potomac into the South, and the Potomac was flooded so, he and his army were pretty much pinned, between this flooded river, and the forces of Meade in the North. Now Meade, if he had attacked, probably could've won the war right there and then, and Lincoln was so angry that Meade didn't attack, he wrote him this really nasty letter saying, "I think you don't even realize what you've done here by letting Lee get away, we could've ended the war right now", but actually Lincoln didn't send that letter, he thought better of it, and instead congratulated Meade on his great victory and, the boost of morale that it gave the forces of the United States, at Gettysburg. So now I'd like to take some time to talk about The Gettysburg Address, which is arguably, the most famous speech in American History, it's pretty up there. And it's extremely short, it's only 272 words. Now Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address, on November 19th, 1863. So it's about three and a half months after The Battle of Gettysburg. I think The Gettysburg Address is really interesting, and all of the events surrounding it, the circumstances surrounding it, tell us a lot about the culture and society of the 19th Century, the progress of the Civil War, and also the way that things are going to kind of be wrapped up in the end of the Civil War. What the ultimate message of the war is going to be, and what the blueprint of reuniting the country is going to look like. So Gettysburg was this tremendously destructive battle with 50,000 casualties. And remember that, after the battle, Lee is kinda fleeing for the life of his army. And not too long after that, Meade pursues him. So the Armies make kind of an incredible mess, and then they take off, leaving this tiny town of Gettysburg, which has I think about 2,500 people, to deal with 50,000 casualties. So men who are dead, or wounded, maybe missing in action somewhere. And they really just don't have the capacity for it, so the Governor of Pennsylvania, contracts out to create a cemetery. And in this period of three and a half months, there are bodies literally rotting on the ground, so it's a bit of a hellscape, the entire town of Gettysburg stinks, they had to burn all the dead horses, so it smells like burning horses, and rotting human flesh. It is not a happy place to be. So the town of Gettysburg and the State of Pennsylvania, are very eager to get a cemetery underway at Gettysburg. And so they begin the process of burying the bodies, and re-burying the bodies, trying to identify the various corpses that are left on the fields. And they ask this man, Edward Everett, who is really the Preeminent Orator of his day. He was like the rock concert of the 19th Century, to come and give an Oration on the Dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery. And they say, "Everett, do you think you can do this on October 23rd?" And Everett says, "No, I definitely won't be ready to have a script for an Oration by then, so can you push it back to November 19th?" So, it's actually Everett who decides, what day The Gettysburg Address is going to take place on. Lincoln, by contrast, was only invited maybe a month or so before, and he wasn't really considered the important speaker of the day, that was Everett. But Lincoln knew, that he wanted to make something of his remarks at Gettysburg. Now remember that, an election year is coming up in 1864, it's been a hard year, Gettysburg is the first major victory that the United States forces have had in a long time, so he kinda wants to make sure that he can set the tone of how Gettysburg is going to be remembered, and to reconfirm a sense of mission, about the Civil War right, when there's been such a great loss of life, and when you're standing around looking at that loss of life, it can be very easy to get discouraged and say, okay, maybe we should just end the war, we should have peace now, allow the South to secede and, retain slavery, and Lincoln wants to make sure that people come away from this Dedication at Gettysburg, with a renewed sense of purpose, in continuing to fight the Civil War. Now there's a common misconception that, Lincoln wrote The Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. That is almost certainly not the case, because Lincoln was a planner. Remember that he was self-educated, and he always took a lot of time in anything that he wrote. He wrote drafts and got revisions and, wrote yet another draft. He liked to be extremely precise with his language, and you can see that throughout pretty much everything that he's written, that he is an extremely effective and eloquent writer. And that wasn't just because he was an extremely eloquent person, he was. That's cuz he worked really hard at it. So we're fairly certain, that Lincoln spent some time drafting The Gettysburg Address in The White House, long before he left. So, the day arrives, November 19th, 1863, and Everett gets set up in a tent, cuz he's the real headliner of the day. Now Edward Everett was I think, the undisputed champion of giving speeches in his day. He was an incredible speaker, and everyone who was there, actually agreed that, Everett did an incredible job speaking, he spoke for over two hours, and if that sounds like a really long time to us, for the 19th Century that was actually pretty appropriate. That's what people expected out of Oratory, in the 19th Century. They paid attention, they were riveted by it. It was like going to see a movie or a concert today. So people really wanted to hear Everett talk for that long. In fact, they were quite confused, when Lincoln didn't talk for longer then just a couple of minutes. A lot of people even were reported to say, "Was that it?" So here in the center we have a picture of the day at Gettysburg and, we're pretty sure that this is the only confirmed picture of Lincoln at Gettysburg. Now, he's kinda small here, but I think this is a really interesting picture, cuz it gives you a sense of what Lincoln's stature was at the time, and also the people that he surrounded himself with. So, this is Lincoln here, right here in the center, not wearing a hat, looking down, and then he's surrounded by the important people of his cabinet, so right here, I'm pretty sure this is William Seward, who was the Secretary of State, and over here, these are John Hay and John Nicolay who were Lincoln's Personal Secretaries. They went everywhere with him, and this guy up here is a little harder to see, that is Edward Everett. Now imagine what it would have been like, to stand on this field, in this growing cemetery at Gettysburg, and listen to Edward Everett, and Abraham Lincoln talk about the meaning of the battle around you. Now remember, that it's November, so it's been three and a half months since the battle, but The Battle of Gettysburg took place, in the beginning of July, and it was 90, 100 degrees outside, so when Lee and Meade left Gettysburg, they left 8,000 or more bodies, rotting in the hot July sun. And many of them had been out there rotting, for those three months so, when you were standing on this field at Gettysburg, there would have literally been human bones around you, that you could see. It probably would have still smelled pretty terrible, so you're really kind of in the thick of the destruction of the Civil War, and listening to these two men, who are trying to make meaning out of it for you, so Everett gets up, and he gives this fiery speech for two hours, and he goes through all of the details of the battle and says, "This is what happened over on that hill, and this is what happened over on that hill", and he tries to rev up the crowd into kind of this patriotic fervor, of not only appreciating the glory of The Union Victory at Gettysburg, but also renewing their hatred for their enemy, and then Lincoln gets up to speak, and he speaks for just a couple minutes, and we'll talk more about that, in the next video.