The Gettysburg Address, Part One (After Everett)

Battle of GettysburgThe Battle of Gettysburg was a three-day conflagration resulting from Robert E. Lee’s second and final attempt to bring the Civil War into the North, in hopes citizens therein would tire of the fighting and tell their elected leaders – Lincoln in particular – to knock it off.

Those first three days of July, 1863, produced the sorts of epic moments and sickening body counts that made the war so grand and so terrible both then and in retrospect. You may have seen the movie, based on Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels - one of the few history movies shot entirely in real time.

That’s a joke about how damn long it is. It’s a really long movie.


The battle was a critical turning point in the Eastern Theater of the war – a series of all-or-nothing melees culminating in the devastating “Pickett’s Charge,” in which the Confederates lost nearly half the men who charged proudly up Cemetery Ridge in hopes of overwhelming the entrenched Union forces awaiting them at the top.

The Union held, and the South was devastated beyond the point of possible recovery.

Black Troops Civil WarThe same month saw the fall of Vicksburg in the Western Theater, the rapidly growing acceptance of black soldiers in the Union after Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick martyred themselves in the attack on Fort Wagner, and the pivotal Battle of Honey Springs in Indian Territory (the ‘Gettysburg of the West’, according to my state-approved Oklahoma History textbook).

I’m serious about that last one only insofar as the book really does say that. But the other events were legit turning points. After Gettysburg and the rest of July 1863, the war was effectively decided.

That didn’t prevent it’s continuing for two more years, but that’s a subject for another post.

The small town of Gettysburg was left with 50,000+ dead soldiers to bury. The armies had done what they could, but the nature of war and the limited ground with which to work meant that it wasn’t long before local dogs or other animals were showing up in town with body parts as chew toys. Farmers trying to plow would run into limbs protruding from the earth. And once it rained…

Gettysburg CemeteryIt wasn’t decent, and it certainly wasn’t healthy.

Fast-forward to the christening of a massive cemetery, conceived and designed with a level of cooperation between state and national government which was not at all the norm of the times. The ceremony to dedicate the new grounds featured preachers praying prayers, choirs singing songs, and Edward Everett – the preeminent orator of his day.

Everett captivated the crowd with his three-hour speech summarizing the battle, the men, the cause, and whatever else you might ask for in the Director’s Cut of your favorite DVD. Contrary to what you were probably told as a kid, he was a hit – people loved that stuff back then because they had what was called “an attention span”, with a side of “absolutely nothing better to do all day.”

Lincoln at GettysburgPresident Lincoln was invited as well, but unlike today the presence of the President did not automatically presume he would become central to everything else. Lincoln’s role was to give some closing comments before the final song or prayer – not to upstage Everett. While it’s likely people anticipated more than the two or three minutes it would have taken for him to deliver what became known as his “Gettysburg Address,” they certainly weren’t expecting anything particularly extensive either. That wasn’t why he was there.

The suggestion that he scribbled the speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride in is counter to everything else we know about Lincoln and public speaking, and is refuted by specific history regarding this particular speech as well. (Like, we have the diary entries and such of men around him who recorded things like, “Lincoln asked my thoughts on his most recent edit of his speech. I suggested he wait for a dove to attack him on the train, but he insisted on borrowing my copy of ‘Greek Funeral Orations for Dummies’ and a thesaurus, so…” )*

Lincoln at GettysburgThe ‘holy inspiration’ myth speaks more to the power and seemingly supernatural impact of the speech in retrospect than it does anything based on temporal reality. Lincoln wrote how he wrote and spoke how he spoke as a result of years of study and practice, editing and peer review. He may have been inspired, but that inspiration was manifested as part of decades of hard work to get better at it.

So, there’s a lesson.

In case you don’t still have it memorized from Middle School, it went something like this: 

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. 

It still gives me the goose shivers. Next time I’ll offer up my amateur breakdown of this classic historical ditty. I know you simply can’t wait.

Lincoln With Axe

*I’m paraphrasing 

RELATED POST: The Gettysburg Address, Part Two (Dedicated to a Proposition)

RELATED POST: The Gettysburg Address, Part Three (Lincoln's Big 'But')

RELATED POST: Useful Fictions, Part I - Historical Myths

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