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Last Updated on September 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 356

On July 1st, 1863, the armies of the Union and Confederacy clashed in the Battle of Gettysburg, fighting for three days. The battle proved to be the turning point of the American Civil War, with the George Meade’s Union regiments sending Robert E. Lee’s Confederate troops south in defeat. With a combined count of 50,000 casualties, Gettysburg remains the single bloodiest battle in American history.

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On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln took to the podium before a crowd of 15,000 on the site of the great battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As a capstone to the consecration of a new national cemetery, Lincoln delivered a brief, two-minute speech known today as the “Gettysburg Address.”

In the first paragraph of the speech, Lincoln raises the topic of the “great civil war” in which the nation was embroiled. Lincoln draws particular attention to the stakes of the war, which he views as no less than the founding principles of the United States. In his memorable opening sentence, Lincoln frames the project of American democracy as “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln claims the Civil War, having riven the nation on the question of equality, tests “whether that nation[…] can long endure.” He then honors the fallen soldiers, “those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”

In a move of great humility, Lincoln goes on to doubt the very act of commemoration. In his eyes, the sacrificial actions of the dead soldiers speak more strongly than words. As he puts it, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Lincoln draws a simple but powerful mandate from the event of consecration. What matters most is that the assembled citizens take it upon themselves to complete the work of the dead soldiers, “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” For Lincoln, “that cause” is tantamount to the mission of the American Revolution: that “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

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