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Historical Context in Gettysburg Address

The Civil War: The Civil War was the defining event in the United States during the 19th century. The conflict encompassed the entirety of Lincoln’s presidency and absorbed the greater part of his attention while in office. The war was fought by the Union—the federal government and the Northern states—and the Confederacy—the Southern states who seceded from the Union in rebellion in 1861-62. The primary cause for Southern secession, and therefore the war, was the issue of slavery, which had divided the North and South for nearly a century. While the Northern states had given up slavery for ethical reasons, the Southern states held onto the institution out of necessity; the Southern economy was based on cash crops like cotton, which were more efficiently harvested with the use of free labor. The war raged for four years before the Union finally claimed victory and eradicated slavery and in the Spring of 1865.

The Battle of Gettysburg: The Battle of Gettysburg was both the largest battle of the Civil War and the turning point, after which Union victory became increasingly certain. Before the battle, however, the Union was in a defensive position, reacting to the Confederate army’s march north into Pennsylvania. It was the Army of Northern Virginia, the strongest force of the Confederacy, led by Robert E. Lee, arguably the single most skilled soldier and military strategist of the Civil War. The Union retaliated with the Army of the Potomac, led by George Meade, an untested officer. The armies clashed outside the small town of Gettysburg and fought for three days in a succession of skirmishes and pitched battles. The outcome was cataclysmic. Between the Union army’s well-stocked troops and rows of cannons spouting grapeshot, and the Confederate army’s seasoned, fearless rebels and sharp leadership, the losses were unprecedented. An estimated 51,000 soldiers were killed, injured, or lost. It is the single deadliest engagement in American history. According to some historians, the war might have ended in Gettysburg had Meade chosen to pursue Lee’s retreating troops. Instead, the war continued for another 18 months.

The Gettysburg National Cemetery: Less than five months after the Battle of Gettysburg, the federal government established a national cemetery on the battle-ground to bury and commemorate the dead. The national cemetery system began during the Civil War in order to respond to the wartime losses. Gettysburg was just the 17th national cemetery established; today there are 147. Lincoln’s speech at the consecration ceremony served to commemorate the dead, confront the state of the war, and reaffirm the nation’s vision in a time of turmoil and tragedy.

Historical Context Examples in Gettysburg Address:

Text of Lincoln's Speech

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"a great civil war..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

The Civil War has gone by a variety of different names throughout the years. One popular name in the postwar South was “The War Between the States.” Other names employed by Southerners include “The War for Southern Independence” and “The War of Separation”; in the North popular names included “The War for the Union” and “The War of the Rebellion.” The most common and lasting name, however, has always been “The Civil War,” the name used by Lincoln, Davis, Lee, and Grant during the war and by most Americans ever since.

"We are met on a great battle-field of that war..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

This short, declarative sentence contains evocative visual imagery that powerfully conveys the magnitude of the Battle of Gettysburg. Lincoln’s use of a passive verb construction here also emphasizes the power of the place—Lincoln conveys that something brought them all to Gettysburg. Years later, Lincoln would use this notion of a divine plan, or fate, in his second inaugural address to portray the Civil War as an inevitable confrontation.

"a great civil war..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

The first hostilities in the American Civil War took place in April, 1861, with the Confederate army’s attack on the US Army base of Fort Sumter in South Carolina. When Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address two years later, the tide of the war was turning in favor of the Union. The Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee had recently lost the Battle of Gettysburg, ending their northern advance and forcing them to retreat.

"all men are created equal..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

One of Lincoln’s primary goals as president was to stop the spread of slavery. After the start of the Civil War, this approach quickly shifted towards the emancipation of the slaves, and Lincoln began taking steps to accomplish that goal by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Lincoln uses this line, taken from the Declaration of Independence, to evoke the founding principles of the country, namely equality and freedom. Given the context of Lincoln’s speech, this is also a clear reference to the Union’s desire to eradicate slavery.

"(Bliss copy)..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

Five-known copies of the Gettysburg Address exist: the Nicolay draft, the Hay draft, the Everett copy, the Bancroft copy, and the Bliss copy. Each is named after the person to whom Lincoln sent the version. The Bliss copy (sent to Colonel Alexander Bliss) is the best known and is widely accepted as the standard because Lincoln signed and dated this version, and provided it with a title. It is also the version chosen for inscription at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here...."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

In this passage, Lincoln conveys the idea that actions speak louder than words. As he puts it, the words used to consecrate the battlefield will fade in time, but the efforts of the soldiers will not. In a twist of irony, Lincoln’s words in this speech—“what we say here”—have been canonized for their eloquence, and thus will be long remembered, despite his predictions to the contrary. The construction of this statement is an example of antithesis, a technique which contrasts opposing ideas to emphasize a larger point.

"consecrate..."   (Text of Lincoln's Speech)

The verb “consecrate” means to designate a person, place, or thing as sacred, to dedicate it to a religious purpose. In many cases, the act of consecration grants a place—often a church or cemetery—a special legal status. The process of assigning events a religious purpose was familiar to Abraham Lincoln, who spoke eloquently of the divine purposes animating the Civil War in his Second Inaugural Address.

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