November 18, 1863 (Wednesday)
President Lincoln had been asked to give “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery being constructed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln was late in giving his word that he would attend. Even by the 14th, he had not officially agreed.
Even if he accepted, he had no real idea whether he would be able to attend. Everybody would, of course, understand – there was a war to run. Besides, Lincoln wasn’t the keynote speaker. There were ministers aplenty, in addition to Edward Everett, who was preparing a long and grand discourse. Lincoln wasn’t quite the side show, but would hardly be missed if he could not attend. Finally, of course, he graciously accepted.
By the 17th, only partial arrangements had been made. A train was to take the President and his Cabinet from Washington, but, according to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s time table, the schedule would be grueling.
The dedication ceremony was set for 2pm on November 19th. Stanton believed it best to leave Washington at morning at 6am. This would get them to Gettysburg by noon. They would have two hours to tour the battlefield before the ceremony. After, they would leave Gettysburg by 6pm to return to Washington by midnight, “thus doing it all in one day.”
Lincoln did not care for this at all. “I do not like this arrangement,” replied the President to Stanton. “I do not wish to so go that by the slightest accident we fail entirely; and, at the best, the whole to be a mere breathless running of the gantlet. But any way.”
Stanton acquiesced, and the train was scheduled to leave at noon on the 18th – the day before the event. Lincoln had agreed to stay with David Wills, the de facto organizer of the ceremony (especially if one asked David Wills).
It wasn’t until the 17th that Lincoln even began to work on the speech, writing perhaps half of it throughout the day.
On this date, the 18th, Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and the oft-forgotten John Palmer Usher, Secretary of the Interior boarded the noon train out of Washington. They were accompanied by a host of foreign ministers, secretaries, attaches, and newspaper correspondents – some very opposed to Lincoln’s jaunt to Pennsylvania.
Together, they rode in a special train with a consist of four elegant cars. As they made their way through Maryland toward Baltimore, Lincoln regaled all assembled with his folksy wisdom and charming stories. But he was not always surrounded by laughing men, reporters, lobbyists, and politicians. Sometime during the journey, Lincoln excused himself, and withdrew into his private room. Some speculated that he was working on his address, but no evidence supports that.
Lincoln had remarked to his secretary, John Hay, that he had been feeling unwell. He had been under much stress lately, even from outside of the war. His son, Tad, had fallen gravely ill, and he was fearful that he would lose yet another child.
Through Baltimore, the train was pulled from Camden Station to Bolton Station by a team of horses (as was inconveniently typical of rail travel through this charmed city). From there, it was set for Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, forty-six miles to the north. They were supposed to meet Governor Andrew Curtain’s train at the junction, but it was delayed. Then, towards Hanover it sped, the last stop before Gettysburg.
They reached Hanover around 5pm, and stopped for about eight minutes. It was long enough for a crowd to gather and a photograph to be taken by Matthew Brady. Now Lincoln was in better spirits, or at least made such an appearance.
“Well, you had the rebels here last summer,” he spoke to the gathering townspeople. “Did you fight them any? I trust when the enemy was here, the citizens of Hanover were loyal to our country and the stars and stripes. If you are not all true patriots in support of the union, you should be.” The southern tier of Pennsylvania was decidedly Democratic. Many actually supported the secessionists. “Well,” spoke Lincoln as he was reboarding the train, “you have seen me, and, according to general experience, you have seen less than you expected to see.”
About an hour later, Lincoln’s train arrived in Gettysburg. The town was packed full of visitors, patriotic and rambunctious in their fervor. Brass bands seemed to be upon every corner, as the voices of carolers could be heard down every street.
Lincoln was ushered to David Wills’ house, and soon it was known that the President was in town. A party of serenaders set up shop outside Lincoln’s window and called upon many to give speeches. Before too long, they were calling upon Lincoln to say a few words himself.
The President was, of course, busy, but his mood had truly lifted. When he arrived at the Gettysburg Station, he received word that Tad was well. With his heart lightened, he came to the window:
“I appear before you, fellow-citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment,” began Lincoln. “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 substantial 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 any foolish things.”
“If you can help it!” a voice called out.
“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 throng digressed, and found William Seward and a gaggle of politicians to fill the void.
Just when Lincoln finished writing his address is not known. In fact, he may have even added or subtracted words on the fly, as he was reading it. When he arrived in Gettysburg, he probably still had the speech only half written. Sometime between then and when he took the podium the following day, he finished it as much as he did.
By midnight, he was asleep.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. [↩]