His remarks, just 272 words, have gone down as one of the most memorable speeches in American history. The words are still powerful, still stir today.
A few months before he spoke, Gettysburg had been the scene of a three-day bloodbath between Union and Confederate forces. An estimate 45,000 soldiers were killed.
The battle was a turning point in the war. General Robert E. Lee's Southern forces never ventured further north after that and gradually diminished in strength.
But on the day of the dedication of the cemetery, the public in the North was weary of war and demoralized. Lincoln told them why it was so important to keep fighting.
It's a unique speech, not only for its brevity, but for the emotional weight of the words, as Lincoln tried to express the need to honor the fallen by rising to the defense of democracy and of the founding ideals of the nation.
Oddly, Lincoln was called to participate at the dedication ceremony almost as an afterthought. Edward Everett, one of the most talented orators of the time, had been asked to be the premier speaker. Only two weeks before the event, organizers also called on the President, who agreed to travel to Gettysburg. On the day of the dedication, Everett spoke first, and apparently talked for two full hours. Then Lincoln rose. He spoke for only several minutes, saying this:
Fourscore 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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.
You can see a draft of Lincoln's speech in a surviving document, written in longhand on Executive Mansion letterhead here.
You can also hear Johnny Cash and other notables read the speech at this online speech bank:
(There's also another photograph of the draft document at the same site).
The photograph of Lincoln during the Civil War at the top of this post is from a free online collection of 35 photographs of Lincoln from that period.
The photograph of the Lincoln Monument at night is by Aaron Murphy and was made available by www.sxc.hu