By Mel Maurer
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2006, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: The article below is the transcript of a speech given by the author to the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in November 2006.
I’m honored to speak tonight on this our 50th – or what Lincoln might call our two score and ten – anniversary. I appreciate the work of our founders and all those, like you, who have made our Roundtable so great.
My topic tonight is Abraham Lincoln and the “few appropriate remarks” he was asked to give at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – to dedicate a cemetery November 19, 1863. I hope to give you some insights into our 16th president, dispel some myths about his Gettysburg talk and to touch on its historical importance.
As brilliant as the founding fathers, and mothers, were in establishing our country, they left, among others, two critical questions to be answered by future generations – slavery and the permanence of the union of states. A compromise of cultures and values gave us our Constitution.
David McCullough in his book, John Adams, quotes Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder opposing slavery, writing passionately at one point on its nature and what he thought would come of it for the country: “Indeed,” he wrote, ” I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
While Jefferson trembled with the very thought of continued slavery, it was the country that trembled with its ultimate resolution in The Civil War generations later. As we know, causes for this, the greatest conflict in our history, are still being debated – and will be debated again here in January. States’ rights? Slavery? Industrial versus agrarian cultures? Politics? Or all of that?
However, as Lincoln scholars, including Gabor Borrit in a talk to us a few years ago, have noted, this much is sure:
Before the war, whatever kind it was, there was slavery and after the war there was not. Before the war, whatever its title, the United States was a collection of states. After the war, the United States was a nation.
Another name for the war – popular during the fours years of bloodshed – was “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” Despite what the South thought, Lincoln was not an abolitionist. While he believed, in his words that, “slavery was an unqualified evil to the Negro, the white man and the State,” he also believed “the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than to abate its evils.”
He thought that slavery would be resolved over time. Doris Kearns Goodwin reminds us in her book, Team of Rivals, that Lincoln once said in a debate with Stephen Douglas that, “Someday all this quibbling about this race and that race and the other race being inferior would be eliminated giving truth to the phrase, ‘all men are created equal.'”
While Lincoln would not have fought a war over slavery, he would not avoid conflict to save the Union. There should be no doubt why Lincoln went to war – it was to save the democratic republic founded, as he would maintain, not with the ratification of our Constitution in 1789 but with our Declaration of Independence in 1776.
He was very open and very clear on that, stating: “If I could save the Union by freeing the slaves I would do so, and if I could save the Union by not freeing any slaves I would do so.”
Lincoln took office in March 1861 and the South fired the first shot in early April. The world’s unique self-governing democratic republic that was the United States of America was then at war with itself.
Any thoughts that this would be a short war were long gone by the summer of 1863. In late June of that year General Lee with his Army of Northern Virginia decided to take the war to the North. He invaded Pennsylvania and had almost reached Harrisburg before the Army of the Potomac, now under a new leader, George Meade, caught up with it.
These two great armies – over 75,000 men strong each – met in battle over three days, July 1- 3, around the small town of Gettysburg, PA – with its 2,500 inhabitants. A battle called by many the most decisive in the Civil War.
The result was a complete disaster for the South. It was, until Appomattox, Lee’s blackest hour – his army had suffered its worst military and political defeat of the war – all he had left to do was to retreat – escape really – back through Maryland to Virginia. The South lost 28,000 of its men in dead, wounded, captured and missing. The North did not fare much better in that regard losing about 23,000 – but it had prevailed. It had turned back the great Lee who had at times seemed invincible. The North had won – mostly by not losing.
The victory in Pennsylvania and the fall of Vicksburg in the West a day later were a one-two punch that may have ended the war if Meade had pursued and defeated the retreating Lee. Referring to these twin triumphs, Lincoln said to a member of his cabinet, ” I cannot in words tell you my joy over these results – it is great…it is great!”
His joy however soon turned to frustration and anger when Meade failed to follow up on his victory – effectively allowing Lee to escape. Meade proudly reported to Lincoln that they had chased Lee from “our soil.” Lincoln, who never recognized the Confederacy, complained to those around him when he got that message, “When will they understand – the whole country is our soil.”
It’s unlikely that those who glorify war would do so if they spent any time cleaning up after battles. While Meade did not aggressively pursue Lee, he did move on – telegraphing Washington, “I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield.”
Included in the so-called “debris” were thousands of rotting bodies – men and horses. As one writer puts it, “Thousands of fermenting bodies, with gas distended bellies, deliquescing in the July heat.” Horses and mules could be and were burned – adding the smell of burning flesh to that of decaying flesh.
But what to do with the human remains who had given their all to their causes? Their bodies were hastily and inadequately buried causing ongoing problems to farmers and townspeople. Clearly something had to be done.
Pennsylvania’s governor Curtin and a Gettysburg banker, David Wills, who had brought the serious problem to the governor’s attention, created an interstate commission to collect funds for “the cleansing of Gettysburg’s bloody fields.” Plans were made and 17 acres were acquired for a cemetery.
The dreadful work of exhuming, trying to identify and then reburying corpses by state was to have been completed between the first frost and the ground freezing but it would eventually take until the following spring.
Wills had hoped to have the cemetery ground dedicated before any remains were moved – planning a dedication ceremony for late October – but the man he wished to have deliver the required “solemn act of oratory” for such occasions, Edward Everett, needed more time to prepare, so the ceremony was moved to November 19th. Everett – called the champion of such solemn occasions – was a scholar and an Ivy League diplomat whose voice, diction and gestures held his audiences in thrall. His was to be The Gettysburg Address.
In addition to Everett, President Lincoln was also invited, somewhat casually and much later than Everett, to deliver, quote, “a few appropriate remarks.” No insult was intended or taken – this was essentially a ceremony of participating states and Federal participation was just not assumed in the activities of states in those days – even in the North.
Lincoln would make the most of his few remarks.
In the fall of 1863, with the turning of the tide in the North’s favor after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, many in the North began to discuss on what terms the warring southern states should be eventually restored to the Union. Some had begun to urge the president to address not only that issue but also the significance of the conflict itself – explaining why the horrific sacrifices it required were necessary.
Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, begged Lincoln to express himself on “the causes of the War and the necessary conditions of peace.” As did others.
Lincoln had addressed parts of these issues in letters at that time intended to be printed and to be read publicly but now, at Gettysburg, he would take advantage of a unique opportunity to define his political philosophy as never before. He immediately accepted the invitation to speak, taking the responsibility very seriously in his preparation for it.
As you know, in those days, there were no presidential speechwriters, or for that matter, not much of a White House staff. Lincoln’s staff consisted chiefly of two young male secretaries – John Hay and John Nicolay. But then Lincoln did not need anyone to write for him.
In a series on American Writers on C-Span a few years ago, exploring their talent, popularity and their influence, only one president was included – Abe Lincoln. Lincoln’s writings include speeches, letters, proclamations and various state papers. As noted in the book, Lincoln in American Memory, “his writing was clear, forceful and purposeful.” I would add – and powerful.
Frederick Douglass attributed the power of Lincoln’s words “to the power of accurate statement, without refined logic or rhetorical embellishment – he had a happy facility,” Douglass said, “of stating a proposition…so that it needed no argument.”
The early 20th century critic Edmund Wilson stated that “alone among American presidents, it is possible to imagine Lincoln, grown up in a different time, becoming a distinguished writer of a not merely political kind.” Earlier, people like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman expressed admiration for his words. Harriet Beecher Stowe believed Lincoln’s words were “worthy to be inscribed in letters of gold.”
That’s pretty heady stuff for a man born on the edge of the frontier in Kentucky and raised without much in the way of formal education. What advanced education he acquired came from reading, so in a way he had some of the best teachers, and for writing, the best examples, in the world.
Now, with the opportunity at Gettysburg, Lincoln would call on all of his political and literary ability in preparing the requested, “few appropriate remarks.”
There are two great enduring myths about Lincoln’s talk. One has to do with his preparation for it and the other has to do with his audience’s reception of it.
Lincoln scholar, Harold Holzer, who told me he still wants to speak to us after having to cancel last year, says that, “The fact is no other speech in American history has ever been so warped by misconception and myth.”
The preparation myth, or maybe I should say the lack of preparation myth, is that Lincoln wrote his address on the train on his way to Gettysburg. As Garry Wills in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America writes, “These mythical accounts are badly out of character for Lincoln who composed his speeches thoughtfully.” His one-time law partner, Herndon, would record that he was “a slow writer, who liked to sort out his points and tighten his logic – and his phrasing.”
That was also the process he used for every one of his public statements. Those that have studied him say it is impossible for him to have waited for the last minute to write his words. Besides, a president on the move, even in those days, is never alone – taking advantage of trips to practice politics. Especially so on this trip with so many states represented. (Andrew Carnegie added fuel to the Lincoln writing on the train myth by saying he even gave Lincoln the pencil he used to write it. Lincoln did try to write once on the train taking him to Washington for his inauguration but soon gave up – maybe because Carnegie wasn’t there to lend him a pencil.)
No, Lincoln would not have waited to compose his thoughts. It seems likely to most historians that some time on November 17th, after giving his message much thought – he seemed to be testing ideas for it as early as November 8th, and maybe even trying a few drafts, Lincoln sat down and wrote out on White House stationery what would be his Gettysburg Address.
It may also be said that Lincoln had been preparing for this talk his whole political life. (An aside – During his weeks of giving it thought he went to a theater one night and saw a play starring John Wilkes Booth.)
Author David Herbert Donald, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his definitive book on Lincoln, entitled Lincoln, writes that the actual writing went smoothly and without interruptions- a sure sign that he had reflected on his words. He had some trouble with the ending but knowing what he wanted to say, the words eventually came and not much time was needed to finish it.
He may have revised it at some point, polishing it as most speakers will do, but it was done before he arrived in Gettysburg November 18th – the day before the ceremony. Circumstances say that he reviewed the speech with his trusted secretary of state, Seward, that night. It’s likely the words, “under God” were added at that time.
A measure of how important Lincoln believed his talk to be is the fact he insisted on coming to town a day early to be sure he would be there. A good plan since some of the trains were delayed the next day.
An example of Lincoln’s reluctance to speak without preparation occurred that night of the 18th as bands and serenaders were going through the Gettysburg town square under the window of the room in which he was staying – one group asked him to speak. Coming before them, he begged off in a light-hearted way, saying:
“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 reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say foolish things.”
Here someone yelled out, – “if you can help it.” Lincoln continued…
“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 extemporaneous Lincoln was not the eloquent Lincoln. John Hay recorded this unplanned event in his diary with these words: “The president appeared at the door and said half a dozen words meaning nothing and went in.”
Lincoln also appeared before a band of serenaders after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the fourth of July. His words then seem to have inspired some of the words he would ultimately use later. He said, in terms of what better way is there to celebrate the nation’s birthday:
“How long ago is it? Some 80 odd years, since on the fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that all men are created equal. Gentlemen this is a glorious theme and the occasion for a speech but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.”
Now, in Gettysburg, he was ready – now he would make that speech.
Lincoln had been asked, in being invited to the services at Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery. Instead, as scholars would later say, he dedicated the war itself to the cause of freedom and democracy – not just for his country but also for the whole world.
It was as if, in preparing his talk, at the time he was preparing it with still so much confusion about what the war was all about, Lincoln was determined: first, to set the record straight on its purpose and then to provide inspiration for resolving, not only the military conflict, but the coming social conflicts of Reconstruction too.
Significantly, in his biblical sounding “four score and seven years” Lincoln confirms his belief in the founding of our country with its Declaration of Independence. As we may know, before 1861 with the onset of the war, the words “United States” were always used in the plural – as in “The United States are a republic.” But not after the war – The United States were now singular – one. “The Union,” founded by our forefathers, was now a nation. The societal, political process that turned a union into a nation was reflected in several of Lincoln’s wartime speeches and letters.
In his First Inaugural Address Lincoln used the word “Union” twenty times but did not use the word “nation” even once. In his first address to Congress on July 4th 1861, he used the word “Union” thirty-two times and the word “nation” only three times. But now in his short Gettysburg talk Lincoln would not refer to the “Union” at all but only to the “nation.” Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” had created a nation.
He would complete his thoughts and the transition in his Second Inaugural – also a contender for his best talk – when he spoke of one side – the South – seeking to dissolve “the Union” and the other side, the North, his side, accepting a war to preserve “the nation.” It may be these two talks are halves of one great speech.
What kind of a nation was it for Lincoln? One, “dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal.” Half the people in the North thought his Emancipation Proclamation didn’t go far enough while the other half thought it went too far.
The proclamation however, whatever anyone thought at the time, was the beginning of the end of slavery in this country. “A broken egg,” Lincoln said at the time, referring to what the proclamation did to slavery, “cannot be mended.” He also said the proclamation’s ending of slavery was a promise that would not be broken.
In invoking the Declaration of Independence at Gettysburg, with its recognition of equality, Lincoln officially recognized a new objective for the war – he would save the Union – and he would end slavery. In later unofficial negotiations with the South, Lincoln had only two conditions for it to end the war – return to the Union and end slavery.
Our nation was for Lincoln a democracy – “of…by…and for the people” – all the people. It was a democracy that was and would be an example for the rest of the world. The Civil War, to Lincoln, was really a test of that experiment – one that had to be passed or self-government would, in his mind and words, “perish from the earth.”
Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us that months before his address, Lincoln told Hay that, “The central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity…of proving that popular government is not an absurdity” – predicting that if we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.
Garry Wills writes in his book, “He did for the whole Civil War what he had accomplished for the single (Gettysburg) battlefield. He has prescinded from messy squabbles over constitutionality, sectionalism, property, and states’ rights…slavery is not mentioned in the address nor is Gettysburg.” (Or for that matter the South or the Confederacy.)
According to Wills, “Lincoln is not here just to sweeten the air at Gettysburg but to clear the infected atmosphere of America history itself, tainted with official sins and inherited guilt. He would cleanse the Constitution… from within, by appeal from its letter to its spirit.” “The crowd departed,” Wills writes somewhat romantically, “with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new Constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off…into a new America. Lincoln had revolutionized the revolution, giving a new past to live with that would change their future – the future of our country – indefinitely. Lincoln had served notice that he meant to win the whole war- in ideological terms as well as military ones.”
And he will succeed.
The Civil War is to most Americans what Lincoln wanted it to mean. His words had complemented and completed the work of the soldiers but sadly not to the extent they may have if he had lived to lead the reconstruction of the eventually defeated South.
The second great myth of Lincoln’s talk is that his address was poorly received, by the crowd, and by what we now call the media.
Some history records his words being interrupted at least five times by applause and others none. But given it took less than 3 minutes to deliver, it’s unlikely that he could have generated too much applause. Just as unlikely is it that there was no applause.
If there was any problem with the crowd’s reception it was the short duration of the talk. Just as it seemed Lincoln was just getting started, he was finished, so there may have been some confusion because of this. Politicians even in those days were not known for short talks.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that the crowd appreciated the talk. A corollary myth to the “quiet crowd myth” is that Lincoln himself didn’t like his own talk, supposedly saying to his friend Ward Hill Lamon as he sat down, “That speech won’t scour” – a frontier term for a plow that wouldn’t turn over heavy soil. Another version has Lincoln adding that it went over like a “wet blanket.” Neither version gets much credit when the source is considered – Lamon is known for making up Lincoln stories and for putting his words in Lincoln’s mouth. There are no creditable sources for Lincoln believing his talk was a failure.
Lincoln, of course, did not need his live listeners to achieve his goals with his address. He knew, as usual, his speech would be printed in all the leading papers of his day – at least in the North. He even took pains to be sure one reporter, from the Associated Press, got it right by showing him his written words after the ceremony.
It was the custom in those days for stenographers-correspondents to try to make verbatim copies of the spoken words at such occasions. Sometimes there were as many versions of talks as there were stenographers – and errors were made. Lincoln, as he did with other major talks, wanted to be sure at least one stenographer got it right. (One paper’s version had Lincoln saying four score and ten years ago leading the editor to claim Lincoln couldn’t count.)
Lincoln was too good a reader and a writer not to know that he had written a good talk. As Harold Holzer puts it in an essay on the Gettysburg myths, “The Gettysburg Address would live because Lincoln made certain that it lived; by giving his transcript to the Associated Press; by writing additional copies for souvenirs and a charity auction and by basking in the knowledge that it would be reprinted worldwide – and praised, at least in Republican journals – from the beginning the Gettysburg Address would be recognized and applauded…”
So how was the talk treated in the press at the time? The Chicago Times, an anti-Lincoln paper wrote, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwatery remarks of the man who has to be pointed out as the president of the United States.”
However that paper also recognized what Lincoln had done by invoking the Declaration of Independence, he was announcing a new objective to the war. It called that invocation, “a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.”
Its rival paper, The Chicago Tribune, wrote, “The dedicatory remarks by the president Lincoln will live among the annals of man.”
A Democratic paper in Harrisburg proudly declared, “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.”
Despite some reviews such as this and a few others in other partisan papers, the fact is the address earned a number of rave reviews following its delivery.
David Herbert Donald writes that “Abler critics did recognize the importance of Lincoln’s argument…The newspaper, New York World, sharply reminded him that – ‘This United States was not the product of the Declaration of Independence but the result of the ratification of a compact known as the Constitution. A compact that said nothing whatever about equality.’ The bitterness of the protests was evidence that Lincoln had succeeded in broadening the aim from Union to Equality and Union.”
As for Everett, himself, the master orator, he knew a good talk when he heard one, writing to Lincoln the next day, he said, “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.” Everett would later receive a copy of the talk from Lincoln.
As someone who enjoys history, especially the Civil War era and more especially Abraham Lincoln, I wish there would be some way to take the myths out of the history of this era and this man. Instead it seems more myths posing as facts, as such things too often do, appear with almost every new book on these subjects.
(I agree with most scholars that Lincoln was not gay nor was he a racist – but given the financial success of books making outrageous claims I’m working on one that will prove he was really a midget – the height was in the hat.)
One of the best-named books on Lincoln is The Lincoln Enigma. I don’t think he was an enigma when he lived but he sure is one now. Sometimes it seems the more I read about him and hear about him, the less I seem to know – at least for sure.
However, I believe him to be a simple courageous man with flaws and an exceptional mind who did what he thought was best for humanity. One who is best understood in his own words, without the intense analysis added by well-meaning, and others not so well-meaning, interpreters of his work.
It seems to me when essays, articles and books are written about a talk that was somewhere between 268 and 272 words, depending on the version, you will end up knowing more about the writers of the essays, articles and books than you will about Lincoln. His words at Gettysburg are simply Lincoln – to know them is to know this great man and what he did for this country and the world.
In closing, return with me now to that memorable November day 143 years ago:
Lincoln, that morning wearing a new black suit for the occasion, left the Wills’ House where he was staying about 10:00 AM. His characteristic stovepipe hat still had a black band on it in mourning the death of his son Willie the previous year. His son Tad had been sick when Lincoln left for Gettysburg but he received a report that Tad’s fever had broken, so now somewhat relieved he got on a chestnut horse and road the mile or so to the cemetery.
Somewhere between 9,000 and 30,000 people surrounded the raised speakers’ platform, which was set at some distance from the burial operations.
The weather was mild for that time of year but there may have been a few sprinkles before the services were concluded.
(I’ve spent 6 November 19th mornings in the Gettysburg cemetery with temperatures ranging from about 40 to 60 with only one rainout.)
Everett gave a two-hour address that told the story of the battle. He did his research well, basing his words on information from Meade and others with inside knowledge. The people listened with great interest – it was a moving address and according to at least one eyewitness left his audience in tears many times during his masterly effort.
Everett had lived up to his well-deserved reputation as a skilled orator. When he sat down, after great applause, Lincoln took his hand and said, “I am more than gratified, I am grateful to you.” No doubt grateful for what he said but also for the lead-in to what Lincoln was to say. Everett was his opening act.
Much of the following is taken directly or paraphrased from Gore Vidal’s Lincoln: A Novel.
Now four hours into the program, Lincoln pulled out a sheet of paper and put on his glasses but then realizing there was a hymn – sung by the Baltimore Glee Club – before he spoke he put the paper away. A warm breeze started up, and the American flag began to snap like a whip cracking. Finally there was silence. Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s friend, stood up and bellowed, “The President of the United States.”
Lincoln rose, his paper back in his hand and his glasses low on his nose. His illness had progressed some and his color was not good – ghastly according to his secretary, Hay. He was greeted with a moment of warm applause.
If the war was “Mr. Lincoln’s War” then this is would be his statement of why it was fought.
In a high penetrating voice with a trace of a Kentucky accent, Lincoln began to speak…
“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.”
Hay noticed that the president was speaking with unusual slowness – He seemed to be firing each word across the battlefield like a rifle salute to the dead.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation – or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
Secretary of State Seward sitting close by also noticed Lincoln’s deliberateness – it was as if, he thought, the president was trying to justify to history what he had done.
“We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place of those who have given their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Lincoln looked out over the crowd to a hill on which rows of crosses had been newly set, the hand that held the talk dropped to his side but then he raised it again glancing at it and continued.
“But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our power to add or detract.”
Lincoln paused, as there was a pattering of applause but then a shushing sound. The audience didn’t want anything to interrupt him. Lincoln was now staring at the sky, continuing…
“The world will little note or long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
Lincoln’s speech hand again fell to his side and Hay knew he was reading as if from some marble tablet in his head.
“It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated, here, to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. It is 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 here gave…. the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve,”
Lincoln’s voice was now like that of a cavalry trumpet calling a charge…
“That these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall… under God…have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
And with those words just reaching the far end of the crowd, Lincoln sat down as those near him began to applaud…
And I will now sit down too.
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