• Notes From The Frontier

The Gettysburg Address

Seven score and 16 years ago today, on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln gave his immortal speech dedicating the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It was several months after the Union Army had defeated the Confederate Army at the Battle of Gettysburg. But the cost was terrible. More than 150,000 soldiers clashed for three days on the battlefield, 10,000 killed or mortally wounded, more than 30,000 injured.


The war had been dragging on for more than two years, casualties were very high, and the Union had few victories to show for the immense effort. The Battle of Gettysburg took place on July 1-3 in the summer of 1863. It was not only the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, it is often considered the most important conflict and the turning point of the War. It marked Robert E. Lee’s major drive into the north, and not only dashed his hopes of a victorious invasion and a coup de grace, but decimated his Confederate Army, costing him more than a third of his troops. 


Because it was a hot summer and casualties were so high, most of the dead—both Union and Confederate—were hurriedly buried on the battlefield where they fell. With so many soldiers interred at the site and the fact that it was a Union victory, there was immediate discussion that the battlefield should be memorialized as a National Cemetery. The year before, in July 1862, Congress had approved purchasing land for national cemeteries. By the end of 1862, 14 national cemeteries had been established, many near or at Civil War battlefields. Gettysburg was dedicated in November 1863 and Arlington Cemetery in May 1864. 


There are many myths about Lincoln and The Gettysburg Address, many of them we learned in grade school. One of the most endearing is that Abraham Lincoln wrote the great speech on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg for the dedication. I actually can remember, as a young schoolgirl, imagining Lincoln sitting in a clackety train, hunched over a crumpled envelope with a stubby pencil, scribbling out the speech in jagged script as the train bumped along. I loved that image, as many Americans do. It depicted Lincoln as a log cabin hero, rough-hewn, honest as bone, but who emanated greatness, even in simple gestures. (Though scholars tell us this is myth, I won’t blame you for continuing to believe it.) 


In fact, Lincoln was deeply troubled by the horrific cost of the Union victory at Gettysburg, which resulted in nearly 8,000 dead and 33,000 injured in only three days. It was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, but also its turning point for the Union. Importantly, it was also one of the first battles in which the dead were photographed, which brought into the rude daylight the measure of suffering of soldiers and the toll of the war in gruesome imagery. According to scholars, Lincoln began writing a speech about the battle very soon after it was fought. But, we do know that Lincoln was rewriting the speech even on the train and didn’t have a final draft until he arrived at Gettysburg. Who knows? Perhaps Lincoln did scribble some last-minute words on the back of an envelope...


There, too, is much debate about where the speaker’s podium was located and where, exactly, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. On contemporary theory is that the podium was located inside the then 29-acre Evergreen Cemetery, which is next to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery that was actually being dedicated. Today, the small cemetery is surrounded by the National Cemetery and the Gettysburg National Military Park. In fact, Evergreen Cemetery was the famous “Cemetery Hill” of the Battle of Gettysburg. There, the Union’s Major-General Oliver Otis Howard lined its ridge with cannons and turned it into an artillery platform. At dusk on July 2, Confederate regiments from Louisiana and North Carolina rushed the battlement in the offensive known as “Pickett’s Charge” and Federal soldiers used the tombstones as cover. The battle was a bloodbath and the beautiful cemetery destroyed. 


Another myth involves photographs of Lincoln at the dedication event. Many were claimed but proved later to be fallacious. Today there is only one documented photograph of Abraham Lincoln at the Gettysburg dedication. It was taken by a photographer for Harper’s Weekly named David Bachrach (see #3) about noon when Lincoln first arrived and about three hours before his speech. Bachrach tried to set up his tripod to photograph Lincoln during his speech, but the speech was so brief, it ended before he had a chance to complete his photograph! Even this photograph was not discovered until modern times nearly 100 years after Lincoln’s speech. A photography expert at the National Archives named Josephine Cobb first found Lincoln's face in the image while working with a glass plate negative at the National Archives in 1952.


When Abraham Lincoln boarded the train in Washington, D.C. to Gettysburg on November 18, several members of his Cabinet and staff accompanied him: Secretary of State, William Seward; Secretary of Interior John Usher; Postmaster-General Montgomery Blair; Lincoln’s Secretary John Nicolay, and Assistant Secretary John Hay.


During the trip Lincoln told Hay that he felt weak; on the morning of November 19, Lincoln mentioned to Nicolay that he was dizzy. Hay noted that as Lincoln was delivering his speech before an immense audience, his face was "a ghastly color" and that he looked "sad, mournful, almost haggard." After the speech, when Lincoln boarded the 6:30 pm train for Washington, D.C., he had a wracking headache and was feverish and weak. A protracted illness followed, which included a vesicular rash, and Lincoln was diagnosed with smallpox. Scholars now believe that Lincoln was in the beginning stages of smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg address. 


Although Lincoln’s brief speech became recognized as one of history’s finest examples of public oratory, his presence at the dedication was more of a formality and he was asked only to give some brief “dedicatory remarks.” The main attraction and keynote speaker who was to give the “Gettysburg Address” was the premier orator of the time and the President of Harvard University, Edward Everett. Everett spoke for two hours before Lincoln and began, “Standing beneath this serene sky, 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. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;—grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.” He continued on for two hours in soaring superlatives. 


After Everett’s long, meandering speech, a hymn was performed by a Baltimore choir. Then Lincoln made his way to the podium. Lincoln’s address, in contrast, was a mere ten sentences, and was over in a matter of minutes. The next day, Edward Everett wrote 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.” 


A year and a half later, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the brief speech had already become recognized as a masterpiece and heralded as one of the greatest speeches ever uttered. On June 1, 1865, Senator Charles Sumner, In his eulogy for the slain president, called the Gettysburg Address a "monumental act." He said Lincoln was mistaken that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Rather, the Bostonian remarked, "The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech."


There are five known manuscripts of the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln’s hand. All versions differ in wording and punctuation. The “Bliss version” was written after the speech for Colonel Alexander Bliss, stepson of historian George Bancroft, to use for fundraising for Civil War soldiers. It is usually viewed as the standard rendition, is the only version that Lincoln affixed his signature and is the last he was known to write. Today it is on permanent display in the Lincoln Room of the White House. 


Below is the two-minute, 271-word speech, in ten sentences, of The Gettysburg Address:


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.

—Abraham Lincoln


PHOTOS: (1) The Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the National Mall in Washington D.C. features a magnificent sculpture of the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, seated with his most famous speech, The Gettsyburg Address carved in granite behind him. The sculpture has been the backdrop for many famous speeches. More than seven million people visit the site annually. (2) The Bliss version of The Gettysburg Address, one of five known copies of the speech written in Abraham Lincoln’s own hand. The Bliss version is the only one Abraham Lincoln signed at the bottom. Today the original is displayed in the Lincoln Room at the White House. (3) The only confirmed photograph of Lincoln at the Gettysburg battlefield dedication, by David Bachrach working for Harper’s Weekly, shows Lincoln (circled in red) facing the camera. It was taken around noon on November 19th, just after he arrived and about three hours before his speech. The hatless, bearded man to Lincoln’s right is his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. Library of Congress. (4 & 5) Photographs taken of the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg by famous photographers, Matthew Brady, Timothy Sullivan and others, were some of the first war photography ever seen by the American public and shocked the nation. (4) One of the most famous Civil War photographs: called "A harvest of death," photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan documented the carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania, in July of 1863. Library of Congress. (5) A photograph by Alexander Gardner of Confederate dead gathered for burial at the edge of the Rose Woods on the Gettysburg Battlefield, July 5, 1863. Library of Congress. (6) The Lincoln Address Memorial (top left) in the Gettysburg National Cemetery. More than 6,000 veterans are buried at the national cemetery, including those soldiers from the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Korean War, and the Vietnam War. As many as 7,000 Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers were originally buried at Gettysburg. Some were reinterred by their family members later. (7) The Gettysburg National Cemetery is 17 acres adjacent to the Gettysburg Battlefield, which covers roughly 6,000 acres.


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Posted November 19, 2019 on Facebook

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