“LINCOLN GOES TO GETTYSBURG”
(From: Carl Sandburg, Reader’s Digest, 1936)
When Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania set aside November 19, 1863, for the dedication of a National Soldiers’ Cemetery at Gettysburg, the only invitation President Lincoln received to attend the ceremonies was a printed circular.
The duties of orator of the day had fallen on Edward Everett. An eminent figure, perhaps the foremost of all American classical orators, he had been Governor of Massachusetts, Ambassador to Great Britain and President of Harvard. There were four published volumes of his orations. His lecture on Washington, delivered 122 times in three years, had in 1859 brought a fund of $58,000, which he gave for the purchase of Mount Vernon as a permanent shrine.
Serene, suave, handsomely venerable in his 69thyear, Everett was a natural choice of the Pennsylvania commissioners, who gave him two months to prepare his address. The decision to invite Lincoln to speak was an afterthought. As one of the commissioners later wrote: “The question was raised as to his ability to speak upon such a solemn occasion; the invitation was not settled upon until about two weeks before the exercises were held.”
In these dark days Lincoln was far from popular in many quarters. Some newspapers claimed that the President was going to make a stump speech over the graves of the Gettysburg dead as a political show. Thaddeus Stevens, Republican floor leader in the House, believed in ’63 that Lincoln was a “dead card” in the political deck. He favored Chase for the next President, and hearing that Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward were going to Gettysburg, he commented: “The dead going to bury the dead.”
On the day before the ceremony a special train decorated with red-white-and-blue bunting stood ready to take the presidential party to Gettysburg. When his escort remarked that they had no time to lose, Lincoln said he felt like an Illinois man who was going to be hanged, and as the man passed along the road on the way to the gallows, the crowds kept pushing into the way and blocking passage. The condemned man at last called out: “Boys, you needn’t be in such a hurry; there won’t be any fun till I get there.”
Reaching Gettysburg, Lincoln was driven to a private residence on the public square. The sleepy little country town was overflowing. Private homes were filled with notables and nondescripts. Hundreds slept on the floors of hotels. Bands blared till late in the night. When serenaders called on the President for a speech, he responded: “In my position it is sometimes important that I should not say foolish things.” (A voice: “If you can help it.”) “It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.” The crown didn’t feel it was much of a speech. They went next door with the band and blared for Seward.
Beset with problems attendant on the conduct of the war, Lincoln had little time to prepare his address. About ten o’clock that night before the ceremony he sat down in his room to do more work on it. It was midnight or later when he went to sleep.
At least 15,000 people were on Cemetery Hill for the exercises next day when the procession from Gettysburg arrived afoot and horseback. The President’s horse seemed small for him. One of the commissioners, riding just behind the President, noted that he sat erect and looked majestic to begin with, and then got to thinking so his body leaned forward, his arms hung limp and his head bent far down.
The parade had begun to move at eleven, and in 15 minutes it was over. But the orator of the day had not arrived. Bands played till noon. Mr. Everett arrived. On the platform sat state governors, Army officers, foreign ministers, Members of Congress, the President and his party.
When Edward Everett was introduced, he bowed low to Lincoln, then stood in silence before a crowd that stretched to limits that would test his voice. Around were the wheat fields, the meadows, the peach orchards, and beyond, the contemplative blue ridge of a low mountain range. He had taken note of these in his prepared and rehearsed address. “Overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”
He proceeded: “It was appointed by law in Athens --” and gave an extended sketch of the manner in which the Greeks cared for their dead who fell in battle. He gave an outline of how the war began, traversed decisive features of the three days’ battles at Gettysburg, denounced the doctrine of state sovereignty, drew parallels from European history, and came to his peroration quoting Pericles on dead patriots: “The whole earth is the sepulcher of illustrious men.” He spoke for an hour and 57 minutes. It was the effort of his life, and embodied the perfections of the school of oratory in which he had spent his career.
When the time came for Lincoln to speak he put on his steel-bowed glasses, rose, and holding in one hand the two sheets of paper at which he occasionally glanced, he delivered in his high-pitched and clear-carrying voice. A photographer bustled about with his equipment, but before he had his head under the hood for an exposure, the President said “by the people and for the people,” and the nick of time was past for a photograph. The ten sentences were spoken in five minutes, and the applause was merely formal – a tribute to the occasion, to the high office, by persons who had sat as an audience for three hours.
That evening Lincoln took the train back to Washington. He was weary, talked little, stretched out on the seats and had a wet towel laid across his forehead. He felt that about all he had given the audience was ordinary garden-variety dedicatory remarks. “That speech,” he said, “was a flat failure, and the people are disappointed.”
Much of the newspaper reaction was more condemnatory. The Patriot and Union of nearby Harrisburg took its fling: “The President acted without sense and without constraint in a panorama that was gotten up more for the benefit of his party than for the honor of the dead…. 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.” And the Chicago Timesfumed: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dish-watery utterance of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Wrote the correspondent of the London Times, “Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”
A reporter for the Chicago Tribune, however, telegraphed a prophetic sentence: “The dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.” The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin said thousands who would not read the elaborate oration of Mr. Everett would read the President’s few words, “and not many will do it without a moistening of the eye and a swelling of the heart.” And a writer in Harper’s Weekly: “The oration by Mr. Everett was smooth and cold … The few words of the President were from the heart to the heart. They cannot be read, even, without kindling emotion. ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.’ It was as simple and felicitous and earnest a word as was ever spoken.”
Everett’s opinion of the speech, written in a note to Lincoln the next day, was more than mere courtesy. “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.” Lincoln’s reply: “In our respective parts you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”
NOTE: “He Loved Me Truly” were the words of Lincoln’s Step-mother on behalf of her Step-son at the time of his assassination.
In mid-war he was asked to give his famous 5 minute Gettysburg address of 10 sentences. Here is an account of that day, and the context for one of the most unusual and famous speeches of all of history. Jim Watt