In Southeast Pennsylvania, about 50 miles from Washington, there is a field beneath a hill. It is about two-thirds the size of a major league baseball diamond. Upon that field, and amongst the rocks above, the Union was saved over the course of three hours. This happened on July 2, 1863. Abraham Lincoln dedicated a cemetery near this field on November 19, 1863.
This field is a place where more Americans have died in battle than anywhere else on earth. During those three hours on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, possession of this field changed hands six times. Men fought with single action rifles, many of them muzzle loaders which are especially slow to fire. And yet they killed each other faster than one can count out loud to 14,000, which is the number who died there in the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field, and on Little Round Top above. In the last hour the ground was covered with the dead, and men charged over the bodies of their fallen comrades. The creek that runs there is now called Plum Creek, because that was its color for some hours after the battle was over.
Twelve days ago, several of us stood upon this field and heard the story of what happened there. We were having a weekend program with the fine Lincoln Fellows of the Claremont Institute. Of course we thought of those soldiers, North and South, who fought in this place with a sense of awe. We also thought of the cause for which most, and against which some, gave their lives. We thought of the nobility of that cause, and the tragedy of the war that was necessary to sustain it.
We cannot explain any of these matters so well as the man who led the Union to its salvation. One hundred and thirty six years ago today, Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and said:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.