November 19, 1863 (Thursday)
The President’s few appropriate remarks were not yet finished. He had worked upon them two days prior, and then once more, the night previous, when he arrived at Gettysburg. After a short breakfast in the house of David Wills, he withdrew again to work. But he had only an hour. Whatever finishing touches he placed upon this short speech were concluded by 10am, the time when the procession through the town to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery began.
From the Wills House, President Lincoln strode, dressed in black, but gloved in white. The gathered crowds delivered round upon round of three hearty cheers. The parade was to be a somber affair. There would be no carriages or wagons of any kind. The dignitaries, including the President, were to ride upon the backs of horses. When Lincoln mounted, the throng surged toward him, their hands out-thrust to shake his own.
As with most parades, there were delays, and soon many dispersed to walk the battlefield, still strewn with the debris of war. Finally, after an hour, the procession, now diminished some in its pageantry, moved forward.
Ahead of the column ran reporters from nearly every newspaper in the Union, each eager to procure a spot closest to the podium. While the President was certainly a draw, Edward Everett was the most famous speaker. Rumor had already set in, true, as it were, that he was to deliver a fine, two and a half hour discourse upon the battle itself.
The Presidential procession finally lumbered its way to the cemetery, dirges still sounding discordant over the strains of other bands playing just as sadly, though farther off. It was one of these bands, Philadelphia’s Birgfeld’s Band that began the ceremony. Lincoln was seated between Edward Everett and Secretary of State William Seward.
Following the opening, Reverend Thomas Stockton delivered the benediction, stirring words to set the stakes upon which the battle was fought. He reveled how the enemy “prepared to cast a chain of Slavery around the form of Freedom, binding life and death together forever.” Of the battle, the Confederacy’s early successes upon the First Day “was the mockery of God and man.”
The Marine Band then struck up some ayre or another, playing while the reverend took his seat and Edward Everett prepared to give his oration. When he rose, it was noon.
“The brave old statesman seemed imbued with the genius of oratory,” remembered a reporter who sat near to him. As Everett spoke, he would now and then take a sip of water. “His voice was clear, satisfying, every note in tune, no signs of age. He never hesitated for a word, and as his oration was historical, and argumentative, with no special flights of eloquence, showed a marvelous memory.”
He spoke for two hours. He recalled the Greeks, and retold the history of the late campaign, starting in the early month of June. Everett had received help from General George Meade and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, both of whom lent him reports of the battle. He also drew upon Col. John Bachelder’s oral explanation and detailed maps, still in their most preliminary drafts.
Everett moved to English history, to the rebellions against King Charles I, and even King George. He recalled Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the crime of the Southern rebellion – the latter he dwelt upon for the long remainder of his speech. He focused upon the depredations of war, the audacity of the seceding states, but shied far from the issue of slavery. He had always been weary of the young abolitionists.
And finally, after paying heed to Pericles and the Peloponnesian War, the great speaker had run out of words, declaring that “there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.”
When Everett left the stage, there was no applause.
Following, there played another dirge – a hymn composed by Benjamin Brown French, the Commissioner of Public Buildings, an unlikely poet. He oversaw White House expenditures and was responsible for redecorating between President Buchanan and the Lincolns. The words were heavy-handed and clumsy:
Shall all this sacred blood be shed?
Shall we thus mourn our glorious dead?
Oh, Shall the end be wrath and woe,
The knell of Freedom’s overthrow
A nearby reporter complained that “the music ran on a bit.” But then the President rose, his legs tired following Everett’s marathon, “the large, bundled up figure untwisting and adjusting itself into reasonable conditions.” There was cheering at first, and the music still echoed its last refrain. Lincoln “slowly adjusted his glasses, and took from his pocket what seemed to be a page of ordinary foolscap paper, quietly unfolded it, looked for the place, and began to read.”
The precise words that were spoke by the President are actually lost to history. Several reporters took down the utterance in shorthand, but those disagree on minor points. It’s very probable that Lincoln strayed some from his written notes, adding a phrase here, forsaking it there. The several drafts that Lincoln himself later produced also differ in places, though the only one he put his signature upon is most often the one remembered. It was written down the following year, and is doubtless the final draft, though it is most assuredly not exactly the words spoken on this day in Gettysburg.
As with Everett, when Lincoln was finished, there was no applause. An uncertain reporter whispered from his seat, asking him if that was all. “Yes,” Lincoln replied, “for the present.”
Over the next few days, the newspapers would run his address. Due to his brevity, it was more often reprinted than Everett’s then more illustrious monologue. But it was divisive politics that held it up or tore it to shreds. Some favorable reporters interjected applause into their accountings, heralding it as “a perfect gem.”
The Democratic press was ruthless, especially in light of how history now recalls the Gettysburg Address. “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States,” wrote the Chicago Times.
The Harrisburg Patriot and Union too called it “silly” and prayed “that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.” 1
- Sources: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 7; “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by John G. Nicolay, as printed in The Century Magazine; The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows by Gabor Boritt; Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills; Lincoln and the Press by Robert S. Harper [↩]