The address was delivered on the 19th of this month in 1863, two hundred fifty-seven years ago. With the possible exception of Washington’s Farewell Address, Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" Speech, it is considered the most famous in our history.
Its delivery was much more unusual than the others. First, the battle giving it its name had been fought months before in July. The speech was delayed due to the burial and reburial of the dead according to which side they belonged to and whether they were officers or not, etc., multitudes being returned to the south for their final internment. Pennsylvania for instance demanded that all of the soldiers of its Iron Brigade be interred together.
Secondly, the speaker, President Lincoln was in very poor health. The closest train station was in Harrisburg many miles away. He may have collapsed there and then had to forego the long carriage ride to the battlefield, and finally had to wait as the featured speaker, Edward Everette, droned on for two hours, a speech now forgotten. Then the poor Executive rose, the weather being acceptable but not cool, and spoke for 2-3 minutes, uttering 271 words.
Lastly, the surroundings were hardly lavish. It was in a field where the audience either sat on the ground or stood. The famous Bachrack photo makes it look very uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, the result was miraculous, even if not immediately. Lincoln, looking pale and exhausted with what was later said to be a “touch of smallpox,” reminded the listeners that it had only been 87 years since the founding of the Great Republic and had been “conceived and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal.” He ended by wishing that the sacrifice made by the fallen men of both sides would renew the nation.
A couple of curiosities might interest the reader: First, that people had wonderful auditory skills at the time, so much so that a few persons from any part of the crowd could have come very close to recalling the entire speech nearly word for word. And secondly, the sending of the speech to the nation was quite a process. Batteries being primitive at the time, telegraph stations were spaced only ten or so miles apart. Using the dots and dashes of the time, the address would have been sent from one station to another or another, etc., until it reached its destination, perhaps taking many hours.