Seven score and 10 years ago: A 'few appropriate remarks' that would go down in history

News-DemocratNovember 5, 2013 

This painting depicts Abraham Lincoln as he gave the Gettysburg Address Nov. 19, 1863.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, longtime Princeton University professor and historian James McPherson has devoted much of his life to studying Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

Who better, then, to be the keynote speaker at the annual Remembrance Day in Gettysburg, Pa., on Nov. 19?

It's been 150 years since Lincoln delivered his "few appropriate remarks" to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, site of the largest battle of the Civil War on July 1-3, 1863.

Now McPherson, 77, will have his turn.

McPherson, however, won't arrive by train. He isn't likely to be coming down with a case of smallpox. And he won't be burdened by news that his young son is experiencing a fever and rash.

Those were all obstacles for Lincoln on Nov. 18, 1863, when he departed Washington, D.C., for Gettysburg, a town of 2,400, to give one of the most important speeches in American history.

But overall, McPherson said, Lincoln was upbeat in the hours leading up to his Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19.

"I think he was in a fairly good mood because the military prospects for the Union were in pretty good shape in the fall of 1863," McPherson said. "What Lincoln didn't know, but discovered soon after he got back to Washington on Nov. 19, was he was coming down with a very mild version of smallpox, called varioloid.

"A day or two after he got back to Washington, for the first time, really, and the only time in his presidency, he had to take to a sick bed for several days. But he didn't know that when he went to Gettysburg, and I think he was feeling pretty good."

Lincoln adopted a light-hearted approach to his illness.

"He had a good sense of humor, as you know, and what he said when he came down sick in Washington was, 'Now I have something I can give to everybody,'" said McPherson, a reference to the seemingly constant stream of White House visitors who requested a meeting with Lincoln to plead for a job.

"I think that (humor) is how he kept himself on an even keel," McPherson said. "He laughed to avoid having to cry."

Lincoln stepped off the train in Gettysburg and was welcomed by local attorney David Wills, Lincoln's official host on the visit. It was Wills who purchased the land for the Soldiers National Cemetery, adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery, the plot for town residents.

Wills had a strong friendship with Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, and he used his political connections to contact other Northern governors whose states had soldiers who fought for the Union. Their support of Wills' idea made the Soldiers National Cemetery a reality, which led to Lincoln's appearance.

Gettysburg residents on Nov. 18 were aware that Lincoln had arrived and was staying in an upstairs room at Wills' home, located one block from the train station on the town square. It wasn't long before townspeople gathered in front of the house.

"(Lincoln) came out in response to calls for him to come out," McPherson said. "In response to calls for a speech, he said he didn't really have anything to say, so he went back in again.

"Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had come (to Gettysburg) with Lincoln, was not so reticent. He came out and gave a stem-winding speech, and that satisfied the crowd."

McPherson said it's possible that Lincoln hastily returned to his quarters so he could finish writing his speech.

"It was Lincoln's habit from time to time to jot down ideas or phrases or sentences that occurred to him and keep them in a drawer," McPherson said. "Sometimes people say he kept them in his hat, but I think that's probably not true. Many of the ideas in the Gettysburg Address, I think, had gone down on paper that way.

"So when he accepted the invitation to go to Gettysburg, I think he went to that drawer, pulled out these scraps of paper and wrote down a draft of the Gettysburg Address in the White House. We know that because it was on White House stationary.

"Whether he had completed it or not is unclear because the second page of it is something that he wrote the night of Nov. 18 when he was staying at the Wills house in Gettysburg. It may be that the original second page got lost -- I think that's probably what happened --and that what he was doing at the Wills House was just putting the finishing touches on the speech for the next day."

Lincoln visited the battlefield Nov. 18 and again briefly before his speech Nov. 19. Signs of the struggle still were obvious. Bullet-scarred and felled trees. Broken fences. Disabled artillery wagons and weapons. Cannonballs lodged in the walls of homes and barns.

Union forces defeated the Confederates, sending them back to Virginia. But one of every three soldiers was a casualty (dead, wounded, missing). Records list the casualty count at 51,000.

"When he says in the Gettysburg Address that, 'Now we are met on a great battlefield of that war,' I'm sure there was a vivid image in his mind of what he had seen," McPherson said. "Of course, where the cemetery was established was part of that battlefield, too."

Dedication Day

Nov. 19 dawned clear and cool.

"It turned out to be pretty much a perfect day," McPherson said. "Weather in November in Pennsylvania can go either way, so they were lucky it was a nice day."

Late that morning, a procession took Lincoln and his entourage about one mile down Baltimore Street to the ceremony.

Noted orator Edward Everett was the featured speaker, and no one in the crowd, estimated to be as many as 20,000, complained when Everett talked for two hours. It was a common occurrence during the time.

"Everett was famous as an orator," McPherson said. "People thought he was eloquent, so I suspect Lincoln was paying a lot of attention and listening carefully. People were accustomed in those days to listening to long speeches. ... We couldn't do it today. I think our attention span is radically different today than it was then."

Lincoln finally rose to make his speech, and it was almost over before it began. It lasted for about 2 1/2 minutes.

What did Lincoln think about after the speech?

"According to Ward Hill Lamon, who was kind of a self-constituted bodyguard for Lincoln who was there, Lincoln said to him afterwards that he felt that the speech had failed, that it won't 'scour,' as he said to Lamon," McPherson said. "But Lamon was not the most reliable of reporters, so it's unclear whether Lincoln really said something like that or whether Lamon quoted him as such for dramatic effect."

Some things are certain.

"The next day," McPherson said, "Edward Everett wrote Lincoln a note saying he wished he could flatter himself that he had come as close to the meaning of the occasion in two hours as Lincoln had done in two minutes.

"It is quite true that the speech grew in stature over time. At the time, it was not seen -- except maybe by Edward Everett himself -- as being so extraordinary. But over time, it certainly took on that reputation and that quality.

"Even as early as that winter and the spring of 1864, it had already achieved something of major reputation and Lincoln was asked to make copies available to be sold at sanitary fairs, fund-raising events held by the United State Sanitary Commission."

Staying power

Today, there are few people who haven't read the Gettysburg Address or heard it quoted.

"Over the years and decades and generations since then, it has continued to grow, I think, in its stature and reputation. It's now seen as one of the great documents of American history," McPherson said.

How can it be? The country and its people have changed dramatically. The great conflict of the Civil War has passed, replaced by other disagreements, at home and abroad. And many other important speeches have been made.

"One, it's certainly the best and most succinct expression of what the Union stood for and what the North was fighting for, what the war was about," McPherson said of the Gettysburg Address.

"Second, it continues to resonate because it has a lot to say about the ideals that our country continues to stand for -- or would like to think that it continues to stand for: Government of, by and for the people; the perpetuation of the great experiment launched in 1776; a new birth of freedom brought about by the sacrifice of those who gave the last full measure of devotion.

"All of those phrases, I think, continue to describe not only the Civil War, but what the country has tried to stand for in other wars and other times of crisis and pressure."

Visiting Gettysburg

Gettysburg is in Adams County in south-central Pennsylvania, about 10 miles north of the Maryland border --the Mason-Dixon Line. It is about 780 miles from Belleville and surrounding metro-east communities. It is 75 miles north of Washington, D.C., and 115 miles west of Philadelphia.

Between 1.5 million and 2 million people visit the battlefield annually, although tourism has been higher this year as the community marked the battle's sesquicentennial.

The battlefield is 25 square miles in size, according to the Gettysburg Foundation. The landscape is dotted with ridges, woodlines, large boulders, creeks and runs. Culp's Hill anchors the northern end of the battlefield, and the Union line stretched south to from there to Little Round Top and Big Round Top.

The beauty of the battlefield today belies the horror that occurred there for the 150,000 Union and Confederate soldiers. There are more than 1,300 monuments, markers and memorials on the battlefield.

McPherson, whose 1989 book, "Battle Cry of Freedom," won the Pulitzer Prize, visits Gettysburg more than a dozen times each year, leading tours and spending time with his family.

"There is a kind of powerful magic about that battlefield," McPherson said. "I've seen it happen on other battlefields, too, but I think it's especially true at Gettysburg."

McPherson describes the monuments as "testimony to sacrifice and the ideal and the determination of the people who fought there."

"I've often felt the kind of disjunction between the peaceful, parklike, pastoral quality of battlefield parks and what we know happened there, with all the death and pain and suffering," he said.

"I think we tend to try to reconcile that disjunction by reflecting on the meaning of the whole thing, just as Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address. More than once, the phrases of the Gettysburg Address ... come to mind and help to achieve that reconciliation between terror and pain and suffering on the one hand and determination and sacrifice and triumph on the other."

Many people who visit Gettysburg mistakenly believe Lincoln issued the Gettysburg Address near his memorial in the Soldiers National Cemetery.

The real location of the platform is about 300 yards southeast of Lincoln's memorial. It straddled the black fence that today separates the Soldiers National Cemetery and Evergreen Cemetery.

Had Lincoln not visited Gettysburg and made his famous speech, would Gettysburg be such a popular destination point?

"There's no question that the creation of the cemetery and Lincoln's speech dedicating it enhanced the appeal of Gettysburg and enhanced its importance," McPherson said. "Even if that hadn't happened, though, I think people would still visit the battlefield as one of the most important battles of the Civil War.

"They go in hundreds of thousands to other battlefields. They go more than a million to Gettysburg. Part of that, I think, is because of the speech there. But, of course, a significant part of it is just because of the importance of the battle itself."

For many reasons, Gettysburg is McPherson's favorite battlefield. His 2003 book, "Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg," serves as a wonderful guide for people interested in visiting.

"That's the (battlefield) that people know the most about and are most interested in," McPherson said. "When I give tours, the kind of awareness and meaning of the war and of the sacrifice is clearest and most stark at Gettysburg.

"Because Gettysburg was complex and because it was so important, people's interest level is so high. That's why I find it the most interesting place to go. It's also a battle of great complexity just as a question of tactics and command decisions. It's very interesting to try to explain that to people and then to answer their questions."

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at or 239-2665.

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