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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

President Lincoln Makes "A Few Appropriate Remarks" at Gettysburg Cemetery Dedication

November 19th, 2013 by Siggurdsson

President Lincoln Makes "A Few Appropriate Remarks" at Gettysburg Cemetery Dedication
President Abraham Lincoln (hatless man in center foreground) arrives on speaker's platform
Gettysburg (PA) National Cemetery dedication ceremony, November 19, 1863
Original image in Library of Congress; this cropped image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: November 19, 1863
It would be unthinkable to let the anniversary of this event to pass without being highlighted in my column.
For the first three days of July 1863, over 165,000 American soldiers – Union and Confederate – fought each other over the future of the United States. At the end of the day on July 3, the Rebel army was beaten and bloodied, and began a retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 men became casualties, nearly 9000 of them dead. In addition, the bodies of nearly 5000 horses and mules added to fetid battlefield air.
As Union commander General George G. Meade was leading his army in pursuit of the enemy, he telegraphed headquarters, "I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield." As a result, the 2500 residents of the town of Gettysburg were left with a monumental task. Many of the soldiers' bodies were given quick burials of a thin layer of dirt, mainly to cut down on the stench of death that pervaded the Pennsylvania countryside. The dead horses and mules were collected at a point south of town and unceremoniously burned.
'Incidents of the war. A harvest of death, Gettysburg, PA. Dead Federal soldiers on battlefield'; Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, c. July 4-7, 1863; Image from Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division
"Incidents of the war. A harvest of death, Gettysburg, PA. Dead Federal soldiers on battlefield"
Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, c. July 4-7, 1863
Image from Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division
For the next three months, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began plans for a cemetery to contain the remains of both Union and Confederate fatalities of the July battle. Governor Andrew Curtin took the lead in the plans, but appointed local Gettysburg attorney David Wills to supervise activities in the town itself. It was a monumental task, but Wills was up to it. The landscaping was approved, and constructions began. Reburials were scheduled to begin in early October, as a tentative dedication date of October 23 was selected.
At that time, it was usual for a great oration to be given as a way to solemnize the occasion. As a result, one of the great orators of the time was invited to give the main speech. Edward Everett was a friend of Daniel Webster, one of America's best known speakers before his death. Everett had served in the U.S. House and Senate, as 15th governor of Massachusetts, as ambassador to Great Britain, and as Secretary of State under President Millard Fillmore. He was that rare thing: a scholar and an Ivy League diplomat who could hold mass audiences in thrall. His voice, diction, and gestures were successfully dramatic, and he habitually performed his well-crafted text, no matter how long, from memory.
Edward Everett (1794-1865), American politician and diplomat; Photographer and date unknown; Image from Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division
Edward Everett (1794-1865), American politician and diplomat
Photographer and date unknown
Image from Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division
When the formal invitation was presented to Everett, he informed Willis that he could not possibly have his oration done by October 23. The orator then suggested November 19 as the most likely date when his meticulous research and creative work would be done. [Official accounts of the battle were only just being released to the public in the early fall of 1863, which would have made Everett's job even more tedious.] Wills decided to juggle the schedule, beginning the monumental task of reburying the thousands of bodies scattered over the battlefield on October 17. He hoped that the reburials would be completed by November 23. [They were not…]
Once things were set with Mr. Everett, a rather simple invitation was sent to President Lincoln on November 2. He was asked to give "…a few appropriate remarks…" directly after Mr. Everett's oration. Lincoln began doing research and wrote some preliminary language for his "remarks" while he was still in Washington, DC.
The President was still polishing his speech on the train ride from Washington to Gettysburg, which took six hours on November 18. He arrived in the small Pennsylvania farming community at 6:00 pm. Event organizer Wills offered to provide Mr. Lincoln accommodations in his own house, which the President accepted. [There were few public accommodations in the small town, as between 10,000 and 20,000 people had descended upon Gettysburg for the ceremony. Some people were sleeping two or three persons per bed.]
David Wills House, Gettysburg PA where President Lincoln stayed; Photographer and date unknown; the building is now a private museum; [Image courtesy of]
David Wills House, Gettysburg PA where President Lincoln stayed
Photographer and date unknown; the building is now a private museum
[Image courtesy of]
Lincoln sat up until nearly 11:00 pm, still working on his oration. The next morning, when his secretary John Nicolay went to the President's room, Lincoln was awake and still honing his words, which were to be presented a few hours later. Finally, at 9:30 am, Lincoln and his party – which included Secretary of State William Seward – mounted horses for the ride to the cemetery. Lincoln rode a chestnut bay horse. The crowd was huge, including "…other dignitaries, townspeople, and widows." The President's party arrived at the cemetery at 11:00 am. It was a cloudy day, with the possibility of raid.
After some incidental band music was played, an invocation was given by Reverend T.H. Stockton. During the minister's prayer, the sun broke through the clouds, and dominated the weather for the rest of the ceremony. After another musical interlude, this time by the U.S. Marine Band, Mr. Everett arose to speak. It was a 13,607-word grand oration. The former diplomat and member of Congress began: "Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies [Mountains] 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."
Two hours later, after presentation of a hymn specifically composed for the ceremony, President Lincoln arose to deliver his "dedicatory remarks." [During the trip to Gettysburg, Lincoln had complained of not feeling well. As he stood to deliver his remarks, his other secretary John Hay remarked that the President's face had a "ghastly color" and that he seemed "sad, mournful, almost haggard." Despite his condition, Lincoln stood before the large crowd, and spoke for about three minutes:
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.
The New York Times stated in its November 20 edition that the President's speech was interrupted five times by applause. An eyewitness said that when Lincoln's 272-word speech ended, the crowd was silent, while historian Shelby Foote wrote that the applause was delayed, scattered and "barely polite." Because of this less-than-excited reaction to his speech, Lincoln regarded it as a failure.
However, the next day Edward Everett wrote the President a letter. In it, the orator 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."
Footnote #1: On the train ride back to Washington that night, President Lincoln was feverish and weak, with a severe headache. A protracted illness followed, which included a vesicular rash and was diagnosed as a mild case of smallpox. It thus seems highly likely that Lincoln was in the prodromal period of smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg Address.
Footnote #2: There are five different versions of this speech: the Hay, Nicolay, Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies. Each version was given to a particular individual, and they differ in small ways from each other. The Bliss copy is considered the standard version of the address, because Lincoln gave it a title and signed it himself. It is the version inscribed on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
Footnote #3: From November 21, 2008 to January 1, 2009, the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History hosted a limited public viewing of the Bliss copy. This draft is now on display in the Lincoln Room of the White House.
Footnote #4: The Gettysburg National Cemetery continued to receive burials until October 27, 1972. In addition to Civil War burials, soldiers from the Spanish-American War, the First and Second World Wars, and later conflicts were buried in the original cemetery and its annex. In 1996, battlefield excavations on Seminary Ridge found the remains of a soldier killed at the battle. He was interred in the cemetery on July 1, 1997.
Gettysburg National Cemetery annex, containing post-Civil War burials
Gettysburg National Cemetery annex, containing post-Civil War burials
Footnote #5: Five days after the dedication ceremony, it was reported that 1188 bodies – including 592 "unknowns" – had been interred in the Gettysburg Cemetery. Four months later, Mr. Wills reported 3584 interments. Today, more than 6000 veterans lay at rest in the national cemetery.

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