November 19 marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—rightly judged to be the greatest speech in America’s history. And while there have been innumerable books and articles written about the content, language, and rhetorical sophistication of Lincoln’s remarks, far less has been written about why he chose the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, some four and a half months after the battle itself, to deliver the speech he did.
Lincoln had been invited by the organizing committee for the battlefield’s consecration to give, as “Chief Executive of the nation,” “a few appropriate remarks.” But these were to follow the main attraction of the day, a speech by famed orator Edward Everett, former president of Harvard, senator, and governor of Massachusetts. With Everett expected to speak to the assembled crowd for two hours at least, Lincoln could well have chosen to follow Everett with just a few perfunctory lines, assuming what really mattered to the organizers was the president’s attendance, not what he might have to say.
But Lincoln chose a different path. Why?
To start, while we remember the battle at Gettysburg as a great victory for Union forces—and, indeed, it was the first-ever clear victory at that time over Confederate forces led by Robert E. Lee—Lincoln saw the success there as less than satisfactory. Although the bluejackets had, over the first three days in July, held off rebel assaults against the heights they held in and around Gettysburg, and left the Confederates bloodied and in retreat back to Virginia, Union forces under General George Meade remained on those heights and failed to pursue their wounded prey.
Lincoln was furious and dejected. The opportunity to crush Lee’s forces as they were pinned against the high waters of the Potomac came and went as Meade, in the president’s eyes, dilly-dallied and allowed Lee to escape back into the protective home grounds of Virginia.
Meade had his reasons: His troops were exhausted and he was unsure of the state of Lee’s forces. But Lincoln suspected there was more to Meade’s reluctance to pursue Lee than just military judgment. When the president asked Meade to take command of the Army of the Potomac as Lee’s forces made their way north into Pennsylvania in June 1863, Meade’s circular to his troops announcing that he had accepted the command of the Army of the Potomac spoke of Lee’s “hostile invasion.” And in a note congratulating his troops immediately following the battle, Meade wrote that the remaining task of the Army was “to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.”
A Pennsylvanian, politically a Democrat, and an in-law to Virginia’s governor, Meade used the words “invasion” and “invader” in direct defiance of Lincoln’s argument that the conflict was a war to preserve the Union and that the Confederate states were in a state of rebellion. To write “invasion” implied the South constituted a separate, sovereign entity.
In an exchange of telegrams with Meade over the 10 days following the battle, Lincoln made his displeasure known. So much so that Meade on July 14 offered his resignation. While not accepting his resignation, Lincoln pulls no punches on why he is upset in a final cable to Meade on the matter: It appears you “were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle.” Indeed, Lee “was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes [Grant’s victory at Vicksburg], have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.”
But why not accept Meade’s resignation? Lincoln was, after all, absolutely correct about the failure of Meade to finish off Lee. In fact, more Americans would die in the war after Gettysburg than had died in the two years preceding it.
Lincoln understood that to fire Meade would be to damage morale. Instead of newspapers reporting on the great victory at Gettysburg, the stories would have been all about how Lincoln had lost another commanding general and, this time, someone who had actually been victorious in battle. And, indeed, Lincoln never did fire Meade as commanding general of the Army of the Potomac; instead, he brought Ulysses S. Grant back East, made him commander of all the Union armies, and gave him free rein to direct the campaigns in the field.
For Lincoln, how the victory at Gettysburg was to be understood was still uncertain. While it was generally agreed that the Union’s success at both Gettysburg and Vicksburg virtually guaranteed the Confederacy would lose the war, it was also true that Meade’s failure to finish off Lee’s forces meant that the conflict would be, as Lincoln put it, “prolonged.” Nevertheless, the South was on its way to defeat—divided territorially by Union control of the Mississippi, strangled by blockade at sea, and short of men and materiel. The Union would be preserved.
But what did it mean to preserve the Union, and how was one to justify the immense sacrifices still to come in order to do so? Lincoln’s answer to both these questions was the Gettysburg Address.
In both tense and substance, that address moves its audience from the past—“Four score and seven years ago”—to the present—“we have come to dedicate a portion of that field”—to the future—“to the great task remaining before us.” In doing so, Lincoln subtly suggests that what once justified the Union—the principles found in the Declaration of Independence—are still relevant but no longer sufficient.
America’s history had demonstrated that the “inalienable” rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were not so “self-evident” that they could not be grossly violated in practice. What a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” would require as it moved forward was a renewed but active commitment to the “proposition” that all men were created equal. Human equality could not just be assumed; like propositions in geometry, it would need “the living to be dedicated” to proving it true. This would be, Lincoln hoped, the Union’s new credo.
Lincoln understood that Meade’s success had given the United States a chance at “a new birth of freedom.” But it was up to his audience at Gettysburg and the generations that memorized Lincoln’s (intentionally short) speech to ensure that those who had fought and died there did not do so “in vain,” and that a fuller, more morally robust understanding of the Union’s victory would live on.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.