Do you enjoy memorizing facts, significant passages from manuscripts, or line in a play? As time marches on, we are challenged by experts on aging that we must discipline ourselves to continually exercise our minds, keeping our brains engaged at a high level of memory. Memories of our youthful past continue to be fresh in our minds, but what we did last week or even yesterday or the day before can sometimes become a challenge.
One of the nightmarish assignments thrust upon many of us during our elementary school days was to memorize the Gettysburg Address. If you are like me, we found that exercise to be quite intimidating and extremely difficult, because we had no idea of the background, the context, or the meaning of our sixteenth President Abraham Lincoln’s “a few appropriate remarks.” We were given the assignment without warning or reason other than it was February, the month of Lincoln’s birth. I can still vividly remember the frustrating trauma of piecing words and phrases together, having no idea of what they meant. Nor did I care. Eventually, as my love for American history grew, especially presidential histories, I delved more intimately into the famed Gettysburg Address. This three-part series of articles will attempt to provide the backstory preceding the actual event as well as the initial reactions from individuals and critiques from newspapers. Let us look into this speech, one of the most highly regarded in American history.
The brutal fighting on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, in the borough of Gettysburg left fifty-one thousand casualties with nearly seven thousand deaths. Soldiers buried soldiers where they fell in battle. During the aftermath, perhaps fifteen hundred dead Union soldiers were recovered and returned to their families for burial in their hometowns. However, due to the high cost of reinternment, approximately seventy percent of the Union soldiers remained in the fields of glory.
David Wills, an 1851 Pennsylvania College graduate and local attorney, stated at the end of July, “Our dead are lying on the fields unburied (in a shallow grave) with portions of earth dug up alongside of the body and thrown over it. In many instances, arms and legs, and sometimes heads, protrude, and my attention has been directed to several places where the hogs were actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them.” Governor Andrew Curtain, after visiting the battlefield, charged Wills to superintend the aftercare of the heroic fallen. Wills realized that his efforts to locate, identify, and return the bodies to their families would be nearly impossible.On July 24, he presented a plan to Governor Curtain to establish a national cemetery within the confines of the battlefield. Cemetery Hill, the prominent key Union center of the battle, seemed to be the obvious choice for the burial ground. Curtain authorized Wills to begin purchasing land that was adjacent to the local Evergreen Cemetery. On August 3, Wills, along with other state agents, recognized that the cemetery must be “national in outlook and independent of local influences and control with expenses to be shared by all states.” By mid-August, Wills had purchased seventeen acres on top of Cemetery Hill and designated landscape gardener and rural architect, William Gardner, to design the cemetery. Gardner made certain that no state received a more prestigious position than any other by arranging the grave sites in a semi-circular fashion.During the design stage, Wills began to consider a format for the dedication ceremony. After consulting with Governor Curtain, Wills decided to invite the foremost orator of the day, sixty-nine-year-old Harvard graduate and former governor of Massachusetts Edward Everett, to deliver the main dedicatory address. On September 23, Boston mayor, F.W. Lincoln, asked Everett if he would prepare and present the key speech. Everett graciously accepted the offer, but indicated that he could not be prepared before November 19. All agreed.
On November 2, Wills wrote to President Abraham Lincoln and asked him to say “a few appropriate remarks” during the November 19 consecration ceremony of the newly set apart grounds for a national cemetery on the Gettysburg battlefield. The fact that Lincoln’s invitation came so close to the event has led some to speculate that Lincoln was an afterthought and that he was not considered suitable for such a sacred purpose. However, although the formal invitation came shortly before the dedication, the organizers had already been in contact with the President about speaking at the event. After meeting with Lincoln in Washington D.C. on August 28, Governor Curtain wrote a letter to Lincoln hinting of the speaking opportunity in November. Possibly by September, Lincoln had already agreed to be in Gettysburg on November 19, and on October 13, Wills told a Baltimore newspaper correspondent that Lincoln was “expected to perform consecrational service” at the dedication. Hence, the Wills letter was the formal invitation, but not the initial one. For Lincoln, because of events in his personal life, the decision to speak was difficult His son Tad was ill and his wife was still grieving over the loss of another son Willie a year earlier. However, re-election was a year away and Lincoln’s advisors told him that he needed to be among the people.
The days leading to the dedication were busy with soliciting bids for removal of bodies from the battlefield to the cemetery. The committee accepted the bid of $1.59 per body buried.Gettysburg also had to prepare for visitors. Wills opened his doors to Lincoln and other dignitaries. Accommodations became difficult to find, leading officials to appeal to people to open their homes for guests. One Gettysburg resident exclaimed, “Every building, public or private, was filled for miles around town the houses were filled with the congested throng.”
President Lincoln boarded the train for Gettysburg at noon on November 18. Riding with him were several cabinet members, including William Seward and Montgomery Blair, along with foreign dignitaries and a few other prominent public officials. As you might well imagine,the Gettysburg train station hosted a large crowd hoping to get a glimpse of Lincoln. A reception committee led by Wills and Everett escorted Lincoln to the Wills house, a block away on the borough square, where a formal dinner awaited. Before dinner, Lincoln briefly addressed well-wishers in the square with a brief speech.
After dinner and as the evening progressed, the growing masses of people gathered in the square awaiting Lincoln’s re-appearance. Not one to speak extemporaneously, Lincoln stood before the excited crowd and briefly spoke once again. He thanked them for the compliment of their gathering to see him, but said he did not appear for the purpose of making a speech for reasons that he explained, “The most substantial of these (reasons) is that I have no speech to make,” he told the crowd. “In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.” A voice rang out, “If you can help it!” To which Lincoln replied, “It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all.” The crowd laughed at the quip as Lincoln returned to the comfort of David Wills’ parlor. The crowd moved to the house next door where Seward was staying and called for him to make a speech. He complied with their wishes and spoke for quite a while as he was prone to do.
As the evening’s revelry in the streets progressed, Lincoln remained in his room where he asked his servant/friend to find and bring him some paper to write a few thoughts for the dedication ceremonies.Controversy surrounds the question of when and where Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address. We will delve into that interesting question in the next posting on Memorial Day.