"Whereas the Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln is the outstanding classic of the ages; and Whereas it will touch the hearts of men and inspire them with faith in our matchless democracy as long as time endures…Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That November 19, 1946, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, be, and hereby is, designated in our calendar of special days as Dedication Day…”
Soon after the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited the site and was appalled at what he saw – fresh graves of the fallen in every conceivable place on the field, and many poorly buried. A large number of the Union dead lay in unmarked graves,...
Soon after the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited the site and was appalled at what he saw – fresh graves of the fallen in every conceivable place on the field, and many poorly buried. A large number of the Union dead lay in unmarked graves, and only the fresh sod thrown over the remains identified the site as a burial. The governor was not the only official upset by these conditions. Several patriotic citizens of Adams County approached Curtin with plans to establish a special cemetery for the Union dead. Governor Curtin welcomed the proposal and agreed that the commonwealth of Pennsylvania would provide funds to establish the cemetery and help finance reburials of an estimated 3,600 bodies. Governors of other northern states pledged their support and offer assistance and direction for the reburial of their native sons.
Re-interments began in the fall of 1863. Union dead were reburied in semi-circular rows in state plots in the cemetery, the final resting place for those defenders of the Union. These burials were far from complete when the cemetery – known as the Soldiers National Cemetery – was dedicated on November 19, 1863. The noted orator Edward Everett committed to deliver the keynote address, while President Lincoln was invited to give “a few appropriate remarks” for the occasion. The President accepted the invitation, feeling personally, and wanting to say a few words about – the human cost of the bloody war and the anxiety of the war-weary northern people.
Hotels and lodgings in and around Gettysburg were filled to capacity the day before the dedication. Under a gloomy sky, the President arrived in Gettysburg on a special train from Washington and was greeted by a throng of well wishers. Escorted to the home of attorney David Wills on the town square, Lincoln spoke briefly to the crowd and soon after retreated to a second story bedroom where he worked to complete the second half of his address begun while still in Washington.
Morning dawned bright and clear on November 19, disturbed only by the booming of signal cannon from Cemetery Hill. The processional began at 10 o’clock, the participants marching to the cemetery grounds where a special platform had been constructed at the edge of the new cemetery. The President rode a horse in the procession, followed by dignitaries in carriages, military bands and soldiers in their finest dress uniforms. Arriving at the cemetery, the officials were welcomed by a massive crowd of over 10,000 people, pressed tightly around the speaker’s platform and ready to hear patriotic hymns and Mr. Everett’s address. After a brief delay, Everett was introduced and looked over the hushed crowd. His voice filled with emotion, he compared in a two hour speech the honoring of deceased Union sons to the funerals held for heroes of ancient Greece.
There was a brief musical interlude. The President then rose and faced the crowd, now pressed close to the front of the platform. He spoke steadily for two minutes and then returned to his chair, accompanied by polite applause. Many listeners were stunned; the speech was so short. Yet they had just heard the greatest speech ever made. The President spoke of the honored dead who gave the “last full measure of devotion” to the nation, and how in memory of that devotion the listeners, and indeed all Americans, must “highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, 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.”
Lincoln and some of his closest aides doubted the effectiveness of the speech and indeed it came in for criticism. But others felt differently, the wisest compliment coming from Everett who wrote the President: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Burials in the cemetery were completed six months after the dedication. Administration of the Soldiers National Cemetery was turned over to the Federal Government in 1872 and transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. The cemetery was expanded, with additional burials of United States servicemen and women in designated sections outside of the central Civil War-section.
On November 19, 1946, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Congress formally designated November 19 as Dedication Day. The joint resolution read:
“Whereas the Gettysburg Address of President Lincoln is the outstanding classic of the ages; and Whereas it will touch the hearts of men and inspire them with faith in our matchless democracy as long as time endures; and Whereas in that address Mr. Lincoln adjured his fellow countrymen to dedicate themselves to the principles of democracy in order that government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth’: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That November 19, 1946, the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, be, and hereby is, designated in our calendar of special days as Dedication Day. That the President of the United States is requested to proclaim November 19, 1946, as Dedication Day and to suggest that the address be read on that day in public assemblages throughout the United States and its possessions, on our ships at sea and wherever the American flag flies.”
President Harry Truman complied and issued a proclamation stating that he did “proclaim November 19, 1946 the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, as Dedication Day, and I urge the people of the United States to observe that day by reading the address in public assemblages throughout the United States and its possessions, on our ships at sea, and wherever the American flag flies.”
This is a copy of the Congressional Joint Resolution praising the Gettysburg Address and proclaiming Dedication Day, Washington, November 19, 1946, boldly signed by Truman. It is the only signed copy of this Resolution we have seen in all these years.
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