Today, the Gettysburg Address is legendary—possibly the single most famous statement by a United States president. However, on November 16, 1863, the iconic speech did not yet exist as we know it. Nor did it impress everyone who heard it at the time.
The Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, had massive casualties on both sides; over 50,000 soldiers were killed or wounded, and about 8,000 of those had died on the battlefield or soon after. Thousands were buried in shallow graves on the field where they fell.
As these graves began to deteriorate, Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania arranged to set apart a portion of the battlefield for a national cemetery to house and commemorate the Union dead. The site was to be dedicated on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the battle.
President Lincoln accepted an invitation from David Wills to make closing “remarks”—a short speech—at the dedication ceremony. Wills suggested creating the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Edward Everett, a nationally famed speaker, was to give the main speech, described in contemporary accounts as an “oration.” On November 17, the day before he traveled to Gettysburg, Lincoln spent time writing his remarks in his White House study.
The next day, Lincoln traveled by train to Gettysburg and stayed at Wills’ house. He described to his Attorney General James Speed in 1864 how he had asked to be alone for a time, when he continued work on the speech.
The dedication ceremonies began in midmorning of November 19th with a procession from the town to the graveyard. Lincoln, Everett, and the other dignitaries present took their places upon a platform. Then the prayers and speeches began.
Everett presented a polished, classical oration, opening with a mention of the defense of ancient Athens in the time of Pericles. Speaking from memory and without notes, he described the progress of the battle in detail, compared the war to various historical rebellions in Europe, and reiterated the importance of victory to the Union. His audience, in a period when people were accustomed to listening to long lectures and speeches, was reported to maintain “breathless silence.” Then, President Lincoln arose and made his brief remarks, concluding the ceremony.
The day after the ceremony, Everett wrote to Lincoln, complimenting him upon the speech: “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity and appropriateness. … 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.”
Not everyone was equally impressed by the speech. Across the nation, the openly partisan newspaper editors of the day admired or dismissed Lincoln’s speech, depending upon their political orientation. The Chicago Tribune enthused, "The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man," while the competing Chicago Times mocked, "The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances." The Providence Journal declared, “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made at the close of Mr. Everett’s oration.” The Harrisburg Patriot and Union called it “silly,” an evaluation the paper retracted in 2013 upon the 150th anniversary of the dedication.
After Lincoln’s death, his private papers passed to his secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay. The papers included two copies of the Gettysburg address in Lincoln’s handwriting, each with slightly different wording; they came to be known as the Nicolay copy and the Hay copy. Lincoln made three other copies during his lifetime. Beginning in the 1870s, historians argued over which copy was the original draft. Most now agree that the document known as the “Nicolay copy” was the earliest draft, which Lincoln began at the White House, revised in Gettysburg, and carried in his hand while he spoke. It remained in the Nicolay family until the first half of the 20th century, when it was given to the Library of Congress.
The Nicolay and Hay copies are stored in the Library of Congress using the most advanced document preservation technology currently available, including an argon gas atmosphere to prevent the paper from decaying. However, Lincoln’s words survive in uncounted print and digital copies, and in the minds of the many Americans who can recite the speech from memory.