Monday, November 19, 2012

The Gettysburg Address 1863

His little speech is a perfect gem, deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.
Associate Editor Josiah Holland, Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, November 20, 1863

On the night of July 7, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln addressed a crowd at the White House: "How long ago was it?--eighty odd years--since on the Fourth of July for the first time in history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal?'" With those words the seeds of what would become the Gettysburg Address were planted.

Almost as soon as the battle there had ended, plans started being made for a private cemetery at Gettysburg. David McConaughy, a resident of that town and president of the Evergreen Cemetery Association, bought "the most striking portions of the battle ground," notably around the organization's namesake cemetery on Cemetery Hill. Writing to Pennsylvania's Governor Andrew Curtin, he wanted to make "the most liberal arrangements... with our Cemetery, for the burial of our own dead" and those of "all the loyal states, whose sons fell in the glorious strife."

Then Theodore S. Dimon arrived at the little town. He had been sent by New York to look after the state's casualties. He expanded McConaughy's idea: Let's build a national cemetery for all the boys in blue on a part of Cemetery Hill, proposed Dimon. Judge David Wills, another prominent Gettysburg citizen, loved Dimon's proposition, and arranged for McConaughy to sell 17 acres next to Evergreen Cemetery that he had purchased to Pennsylvania. With that land now in the hands of the state, Judge Wills started to make his and Dimon's dream come true. Architect William Saunders designed the cemetery as a great semicircle, with the graves organized by state- Union states, of course, although Southern bodies undoubtedly made their way into list of unknown graves despite the best efforts at identification. The process of interning the many bodies of the Gettysburg Campaign would not be finished until March the following year.

(As for McConaughy, he revised his dream: "The thought occurred to me that there could be no more fitting and expressive memorial to the heroic valor... of our army than the battlefield itself." His land acquisitions would be the foundation of Gettysburg National Military Park.)

Anyway, Wills thought it necessary that this national cemetery have a national dedication. On September 23, he invited Edward Everett- a man extolled for his oratory, a former president of Harvard who was described by none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson as being "a master of elegance." The ceremony had originally been scheduled to occur exactly one month later, October 23, but Everett said that the earliest he could have a speech ready was 19th of the month after that. So it was that November 19 was designated as the day of dedication. William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier were invited as well, and requested to exercise their literary talents to make some poem or ode for the event, but all of them turned down the invitation.

Oddly enough, the president was the last one to be asked to attend. On November 2, Wills penned a letter to Lincoln: "I am authorized by the Governors of the different states to invite you to be present," Wills wrote, "and participate in these ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive. It is a 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."

Lincoln accepted the invitation, surprising his cabinet. After all, he only left Washington to visit the Army of the Potomac and had always declined such opportunities, preferring to communicate with the public through letters. What changed him? The answer lies in some advice given to him by Republican Charles Sumner, which was to pay heed to Boston industrialist John Murray Forbes' letter: "My suggestion then is that you should seize an early opportunity and any subsequent chance to teach your great audience."

Waiting at Gettysburg's depot on Carlisle Street was a delegation of three- Everett, Wills, and, the marshal and chief for the dedication, Ward Hill Lamon. In the growing darkness- the sun had already disappeared below the horizon and dinnertime was near- they saw the train approaching, smoke belching from its smokestack as it moved along the tracks. It was Wednesday evening, November 18, 1863. When the train stopped, a lanky man emerged: Lincoln had arrived. As he was stepping down, the president noticed a multitude of coffins neatly arranged on the station platform. Tomorrow he would explain how those lifeless bodies within them should be remembered...

By coach Lincoln was taken to Judge Wills' home, "the Diamond," so named by the other residents of Gettysburg because it was the most exquisite house on the town square. In the Diamond, he was led upstairs to his bedroom. Under candlelight he put the finishing touches on his address. At times in mind wandered: Tad's illness is severe... Mary will be devastated if he doesn't make it... (Lincoln, it should be noted, wasn't feeling well either.)

In front of the Diamond on the morning of November 19, Ward Hill Lamon brought the dignitaries together with difficulty. It was nice autumn day: From the blue sky, the sun brightened the land with its beams. At 10:00 A.M. Lincoln came out the front door, wearing a black suit and frock coat, and, of course, his silk stovepipe hat, with a mourning band in remembrance of dear Willie. He was given a bay horse to ride, an animal so small that the president's legs almost made contact with the ground. 
Regiment marching down a village street, Gettysburg, Pa by Mathew Brady
More and more people, pouring in from York and Carlisle Streets, gathered in the town square. The procession all formed and ready, it proceeded down Baltimore Street, headed for the new cemetery. Among those riding in this throng was Lincoln himself. "He seemed very tall and gaunt to me, but his face was wonderful to look upon," remembered 15 year-old Albertus McCreary. "It was such a sad face and so full of kindly feeling that one felt at home with him at once." All along the street were Union flags. Buildings still showed the scars of war, their walls riddled with bullet holes. Little boys and girls sold not only cookies and lemonade, but spent bullets and cannonballs as well.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Gettysburg [1863 Nov. 19] So succinct was the president
that the photographer never had a chance to take a picture of him giving the speech.

The crowd having reached the cemetery, the dedication commenced. It began with an invocation and hymn. Everett gave his oration first. He narrated the battle that happened where everyone stood, his speech no doubt augmented by the participants he had interviewed. At one point he slipped up significantly, perturbing the president, who was listening intently: When Everett mentioned "General Lee," Lincoln turned to his closest friend in his cabinet, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and whispered who Everett meant- "General Meade." Everett's speech was superb as usual... and very, very long, lasting two hours and eight minutes. When it was over, the band struck up a tune.
Crowd of citizens, soldiers, and etc. with Lincoln at Gettysburg. by Mathew Brady
With the song finished, Lamon spoke to the now fidgety audience: Ladies and Gentlemen, the president of the United States. As a photographer was preparing take a photograph of him delivering his address, Lincoln rose, made some adjustments to his spectacles, and took out a piece of paper with his "few appropriate remarks" from his coat's left breast pocket. Before him, and behind the audience, were the graves of those who gave their lives in the name of freedom. Then, he put the paper in his left hand, and spoke words that would forever be etched in American memory. "He spoke in a quiet, forcible, and earnest manner with no attempt at oratory," noted teenage Gettysburg resident Daniel Skelly in his 1932 memoirs: 

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. [One should note that the first sentence was inspired by Psalm 90, which states, "The days of our years are threescore and ten; And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years." Indeed, the opening of the address essentially sets the tone of the remainder of the speech, with a spiritual sort of rhetoric.]

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 last two sentences are perhaps the most insightful remarks Lincoln made in his address. His observation still rings true today. Veterans believe that mere monuments dedicated to a particular unit are insufficient to make it more or less holy. Many of them assert that if a battlefield was to be sufficiently consecrated, there would have to be a monument for everyone that fell. Also, Lincoln does not refer to "The brave boys in blue" but "The brave men," indicating that the Rebels, too, made this ground hallow.] The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it cannot 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 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 caused 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.

The response on the Gettysburg Address by the press was typical. His proponents loved it. "Surprisingly fine as Mr. Everett's oration was in the Gettysburg consecration," wrote Josiah Holland, the associate editor of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Republican, on the following day, the 20th, "the rhetorical honors of the occasion were won by President Lincoln." The Chicago Tribune agreed the same day: "Half a century hence, to have lived in this age will be fame. To have served it well as Lincoln, will be immortality." His opponents, of course, hated it. Again on the 20th, and only 36 miles from Gettysburg, the Harrisonburg Patriot and Union was very dismissive: "We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of." The Chicago Times was especially acerbic in its denouncement of Lincoln's speech on the 21st: "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the filly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of a man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States. Across the Atlantic, on December 4, the Times of London, generally contemptuous towards all things American, agreed: "The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln."

Yet the highest, most incisive complement was payed to Lincoln by Edward Everett. At first, he too, was critical of Lincoln's speeches: Everett had told his diary on February 15, 1861 that they "thus far have been of the most ordinary kind, destitute of everything, not merely of felicity and grace, but of common pertinence. He is evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis." Now, on November 20, he praised him:

Permit me... to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the Cemetery. 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.


Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.

Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: a Testing of Courage. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.

White, Ronald C. A. Lincoln: a Biography. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

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