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Abraham Lincoln's Invitation to Speak at Gettysburg and the Meaning of the Gettysburg Address

In November of 1863 President Abraham Lincoln was invited to attend the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Seventeen acres adjacent to the town's regular cemetery had been purchased for the burial of the soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. The chief orator was to be the eloquent Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Mr. Lincoln would then add a few appropriate remarks in honor of the dead. Everett ended up speaking for about two hours; Lincoln spoke for less than three minutes.

While in Gettysburg, where would the president stay? David Wills, a Gettysburg attorney, was the chairman of the cemetery board. His home fronted on the public square. Wills invited the president to stay overnight at his home.

The president rode to Gettysburg on a special train of four cars furnished by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The train left Washington, D.C. and traveled through Maryland to Baltimore. There it was transferred to the North Central tracks and proceeded on that line to Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania. There it changed to the Hanover Line for the remainder of the trip to Gettysburg.

Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg at 5:00 P.M. on November 18. He ate dinner and spent the night at Wills' mansion before giving his famous address the next day.

To the right is an image of the first page of Wills' personal invitation to President Lincoln.
On November 19, 1863, Lincoln had breakfast at the the home of David Wills. After breakfast, Lincoln went to his room where his secretary, John Nicolay, joined him, and he completed preparation for his speech. About 10:00 A.M., dressed in black and wearing white gauntlet gloves, departed the Wills' house to join the procession. Lincoln received a round of cheers and did a lot of handshaking as the crowd gathered. The weather was fine and Lincoln mounted a chestnut-colored horse and rode in the procession to the cemetery. The actual procession moved at about 11:00 A.M.


Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

At the cemetery, Lincoln, along with members of his Cabinet and other civil and military dignitaries, occupied the platform. Lincoln received a military salute. The president took a seat between chairs reserved for Secretary of State William Seward and Edward Everett, the other principal speaker that day.

At 11:40 Everett arrived and was introduced to the president. The program music then began. Everett began his speech at about noon, and it concluded about two hours later at 2:00 P.M. During Everett's speech, Lincoln once took out his own speech, put his glasses on, and looked over the speech he would give. At about 2:00 P.M. Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address:

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 battle-field 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.

Lincoln's main goals were to dedicate the battlefield to the men who died there and to explain to the nation why the Civil War was worth fighting and would continue to be fought. He referred to the past when he said, "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." This was a reference to the Founding Fathers who had adopted the Declaration of Independence which outlined the reasons the colonists were breaking away from England.

He referred to the present when he said, "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 battle-field 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." This meant that our nation was fighting a great Civil War to see if we would survive as a country. He thought it was a proper thing to dedicate a portion of the Gettysburg battlefield as a remembrance of the men who had fought and died there.

He referred to the future when he said, "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." Lincoln was saying that the people who were still alive must dedicate themselves to finish the task that the dead soldiers had begun which was to save the nation so it would not perish from the earth. Lincoln felt that the Southern states could not legally leave the Union and form their own country, and that the North was going to continue to use force to bring the South back into the country.



After the speech Lincoln had an unplanned, handshaking reception at the Wills' home. This went on for about an hour. He also visited Gettysburg's Presbyterian Church.

That evening the special train departed Gettysburg about 7 P.M., and it arrived back in Washington at about 1:10 A.M. on Friday, November 20. The president was actually in Gettysburg proper for about 26 hours. On the train home he was quite weary. He talked little, stretched out on one of the side seats in the drawing room and had a wet towel placed across his eyes and forehead. Within a week of his return he was quite ill with varioloid, a mild form of smallpox. Lincoln remained under quarantine for about three weeks. During this period of illness (late 1863) he saw few visitors and transacted little business.


Notable attendees at Gettysburg included the following people: Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania, Governor Augustus W. Bradford of Maryland, Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana, Governor Horatio Seymour of New York, Governor Joel Parker of New Jersey, Governor William Dennison, Jr. of Ohio, ex-Governor David Tod and Governor-Elect John Brough of Ohio, speaker Edward Everett and his daughter, Ward Hill Lamon, Secretary of State William Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives Thomas H. Stockton, Benjamin B. French (who was the officer in charge of buildings in Washington) and many others.

There are various myths on how Lincoln actually wrote the address. There is the legend that he wrote it on the back of an envelope. Another legend has him writing it on a piece of cardboard as the train traveled its 80-mile trip from Washington to Gettysburg. Still another story has him writing it at his host's house the night before giving the address itself. However, all of these legends are out of character for Lincoln. He took the occasion very seriously. The most reliable accounts of the speech's origin are that he essentially composed it in Washington and perhaps made a few refinements while staying overnight at David Wills' house. Two of Lincoln's friends...Noah Brooks and Ward Hill Lamon... said that Lincoln wrote the speech in the White House prior to leaving for Gettysburg.

Lincoln wrote five different versions of his speech. He wrote most of the first version in Washington, D.C., and probably completed it at Gettysburg. He probably wrote the second version at Gettysburg on the evening before he delivered his address. He held this second version in his hand during the address. But he made several changes as he spoke. The most important change was to add the phrase "under God" after the word "nation" in the last sentence. Lincoln also added that phrase to the three versions of the address that he wrote after the ceremonies at Gettysburg. Lincoln wrote the final version of the address...the fifth written version...in 1864. This version also differed somewhat from the speech he actually gave, but it was the only copy he signed. It is carved on a stone plaque in the Lincoln Memorial. Two copies of the Gettysburg Address are in the Library of Congress, one is in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, one is in the Cornell University Library, and one is in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

On the platform after the speech, Lincoln allegedly remarked to Ward Hill Lamon, "Lamon, that speech won't scour! It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed."

The Gettysburg Address didn't earn lasting fame until after Lincoln's death; initial reaction was mixed. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow told the editor of Harpers Weekly that he found the address "admirable." Harpers called the address as "simple and felicitous and earnest a word as ever was spoken." Josiah Gilbert Holland of the Springfield, Massachusetts Republican called the speech "a perfect gem" and said "the rhetorical honors of the occasion were won by President Lincoln." The Chicago Tribune announced that "The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man." John W. Forney, writing in the Washington Chronicle, said that the address "though short, glittered with gems, evincing the gentleness and goodness of heart peculiar to him." The Providence Journal said, "We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made."

On a more negative note, the New York World accused Lincoln of "gross ignorance or willful mis-statement." Wilbur F. Storey of the Chicago Times wrote "that invoking the Declaration of Independence Lincoln was announcing a new objective in the war." Storey continued, calling the address "a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful."

Abraham Lincoln never knew that his Gettysburg Address would become one of the most famous speeches in American history.


SKETCH OF LINCOLN DELIVERING THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS
Source: Library of Congress

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