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Lincoln At Gettysburg

As November 19 marks the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, it is interesting to look at the days and weeks before the dedication ceremony and Abraham Lincoln’s determination to get to the small town in Pennsylvania.
David Wills, a Gettysburg lawyer, had been placed in charge of putting together the new National Cemetery in the months following the battle. He had worked to purchase the land, let contracts for the reburial of the dead into the cemetery, hired a landscaper to lay out the grounds and planned the formal dedication ceremony.

On November 2, he wrote to President Lincoln inviting him to the ceremonies to be held 17 days later. Wills had engaged the noted orator of the day, Edward Everett, to give the formal address and desired to have the president give some short remarks to officially dedicate the burial grounds. Wills had originally wanted the dedication in October but Everett had asked for a later date in order to prepare his oration. 

Edward Everett

Lincoln’s contribution, labeled “remarks,” was intended to make the dedication formal (somewhat like ribbon-cutting at modern openings). That Lincoln was invited almost at the last minute, almost as an afterthought as we are taught today, seemed strange. Yet Wills had intended to invite him and had told many that the president would join Everett on the stage.

Lincoln spent time in writing the short speech he would deliver. There are the silly but persistent myths that he wrote it on the train to Gettysburg, or that evening while staying at the Wills home on the square, or even composing it in his head while Everett delivered his two hour oration.

Lincoln knew what he wanted to say and after receiving the invitation spent the time in crafting those words. And he desired to be there for the dedication, moving his schedule around to accommodate the trip even while his child was sick and so soon after the death of another son. The president and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were no strangers to juvenile illness: They had already lost two sons to disease. Prone to fits of hysteria, Mary Lincoln panicked when her husband prepared to leave to travel to the small town in Pennsylvania.  However, Lincoln was determined to attend.

As Garry Wills (no relation), in his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg, Words that remade America” put it:
“The careful negotiations with Everett form a contrast, more surprising to us than to contemporaries, with the casual invitation to President Lincoln, issued some time later as part of a general call for the federal Cabinet and other celebrities to join in what was essentially a ceremony of the participating states. No insult was intended. Federal responsibility for or participation in state activities was not assumed then. And Lincoln took no offense. Though specifically invited to deliver only “a few appropriate remarks” to open the cemetery, he meant to use this opportunity. The partly mythical victory of Gettysburg was an element of his administration’s war propaganda….The President had important business in Gettysburg.”

Here is the text of Will’s invitation:
“It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the Great Battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.”

From Gary Wills, “Lincoln at Gettysburg”:
Lincoln knew the power of his rhetoric to define war aims. He was seeking occasions to use his words outside the normal round of proclamations and reports to Congress. His determination not only to be present at Gettysburg for the dedication on November 19 but to speak is seen in the way he overrode staff scheduling for the trip to Gettysburg. [Secretary of war William] Stanton had arranged for a 6:00 A.M. train to take him the hundred and twenty rail miles to the noontime affair. But Lincoln was familiar enough by now with military movement to appreciate what Clausewitz called “friction” in the disposal of forces—the margin for error that must always be built into planning. [Lincoln bodyguard and advisor Ward Hill] Lamon would have informed Lincoln about the potential for muddle on the nineteenth. State delegations, civic organizations, military bands and units, were planning to come by train and road, bringing at least ten thousand people to a town with poor resources for feeding and sheltering crowds (especially if the weather turned bad). So Lincoln countermanded Stanton’s plan: “I do not like this arrangement. I do not wish to so go that by the slightest accident we fail entirely, and, at the best, the whole to be a mere breathless running of the gauntlet.”

If Lincoln had not changed the schedule, he would very likely not have given his talk. Even on the day before, his trip to Gettysburg took six hours, with transfers in Baltimore and at Hanover Junction … [He] kept his resolution to leave a day early.

Despite his son’s illness, Lincoln was in good spirits during the journey. He was accompanied by an entourage that included Secretary of State William Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Interior Secretary John Usher, Lincoln’s personal secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay, several members of the diplomat corps, some foreign visitors, the US Marine band, and a military escort.

Lincoln’s train arrived toward dusk in Gettysburg. There were still coffins stacked at the station for completing the reburials. Ward Hill Lamon (who served as the parade marshal), David Wills (his host for the evening), and Edward Everett (the principal speaker for the next day’s dedication) met Lincoln and escorted him the two blocks to the Wills home, where dinner was waiting, along with almost two dozen other distinguished guests. Lincoln’s black servant, William Slade, took his luggage to the second-story room where he would stay that night, which looked out on the square.

Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay wrote: “Except during its days of battle the little town of Gettysburg had never been so full of people,” he wrote. “After the usual supper hour the streets literally swarmed with visitors, and the stirring music of regimental bands and patriotic glee-clubs sounded in many directions. With material so abundant, and enthusiasm so plentiful, a serenading party soon organized itself to call on prominent personages for impromptu speeches, and of course the President could not escape. The crowd persisted in calling him out, but Mr. Lincoln showed himself only long enough to utter the few commonplace excuses which politeness required.”Nicolay reprinted President Lincoln’s impromptu remarks:

I appear before you, fellow-citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. [Laughter] In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things. [A voice from the crowd: If you can help it.] It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. [Laughter] Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.”

Lincoln had important business to tend to for the next day….

The next day,  November 19, 1863 President Lincoln rode in the procession to the new National Cemetery. He spoke for only two minutes. Lincoln started off by reminding his audience that it had been only 87 years since the country’s founding, and then went on to embolden the Union cause with some of the most stirring words ever spoken. It is worth it to spend a few moments and take them in. Many myths have sprouted over the 150 years since his visit but I believe all Americans, especially in turbulent times, can look at the words spoken this day with renewed determination to help guide our nation.

What Lincoln said changed the definition of the Civil War. According to Gary Wills in “Lincoln at Gettysburg, The Words that Remade America”, “The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as he did to correct the Constitution without overthrowing it.”

I commend to you the book: Gary Will’s “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America” You can read it here:

Lincoln’s 3 minute address is aways painfully compared to the 2 hour oration (called eloquent bombast by one Lincoln writer) given by Edward Everette. It was actually Everette’s oration that should hold hold the title “The Gettysburg Address.” Long speeches and orations were the customary entertainment of the time. Crowds were enthralled with the hours-long Lincoln/Douglas debates in 1858 and were delighted to hear Daniel Webster, Edward Everette, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other orators of the day recite carefully composed prose for two hours at the least. Lincoln’s words were meant to be as a formal dedication like to cut a ribbon or announce an opening. Here is the program for that day:

Music. by Birgfield’s Band.
Prayer. by Rev. T.H. Stockton, D.D.
Music. by the Marine Band.
ORATION. by Hon. Edward Everett.
Music. Hymn composed by B. B. French.
DEDICATORY REMARKS by the President of the United States
Dirge. sung by Choir selected for the occasion.
Benediction. by Rev. H.L. Baugher, D.D.

Although brief, Lincoln’s words made it’s way into our public conscientious. Despite the myths of it being a poor speech it survives as a classic work of American rhetorical speech. Even Everett realized it, later writing to Lincoln, “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.”

Again from Gary Wills
“Lincoln was here to clear the infected atmosphere of American history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution—not as William Lloyd Garrison had, by burning an instrument that countenanced slavery. He altered the document from within, by appeal from its letter to the spirit, subtly changing the recalcitrant stuff of that legal compromise, bringing it to its own indictment. By implicitly doing this, he performed one of the most daring acts of open-air sleight of hand ever witnessed by the unsuspecting. Everyone in that vast throng of thousands was having his or her intellectual pocket picked.

The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, the new Constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they had brought there with them. They walked off from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America. Lincoln had revolutionized the Revolution, giving people a new past to live with that would change their future indefinitely …by accepting the Gettysburg Address, and its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.”

Here are those stirring words:
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 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 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.
-A. Lincoln November 19, 1863

From “Lincoln At Gettysburg: Words that Remade America” by George Wills

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America written by Garry Wills and published by Simon & Schuster in 1992, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism


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