Lincoln At Gettysburg

Examines misconceptions and reality surrounding Lincoln and his speech at Gettysburg in 1863

Strategically located near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, Gettysburg was a plum ripe for the taking for Confederate forces in the summer of 1863. If Gettysburg could be captured, the east-west railroad connection of the Union could be severed, a Southern advance into Northern territory could relieve pressure on Confederate troops elsewhere, and perhaps France or England would enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. Seeing the opportunity, Lee called for an attack.

After three days of bloody July fighting rebel forces were routed; however, much to President Abraham Lincoln's chagrin his newly-appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, George Meade, failed to follow up on the initial victory, and Lee's forces survived to fight another day.

In the aftermath of the terrible slaughter at Gettysburg--3,903 Confederate soldiers killed and 23,000 Union casualties, it was decided to honor the dead by commissioning a federal cemetery at Gettysburg. Lincoln was extended an invitation to speak at the dedication ceremonies.

Many misconceptions cluster around Lincoln and that brief speech. For example, it is often believed that Lincoln must have been a terribly popular president. However, the truth is rather different. Lincoln was elected as a compromise candidate, one the public hoped would do the least damage in dealing with the crisis of South Carolina's succession from the Union.

Lincoln's initial position was so vulnerable that as a result of assassination threats he had to be disguised to get him through Baltimore as he rode east to assume office. Subsequent events proved little better. He had the misfortune of choosing cautious generals who virtually refused to fight. Thus, Lincoln bore the onus of thousands of Union boys dead with virtually nothing in the way of military progress to show for it. In addition, Lincoln had had to deal harshly with seditious speech in Northern states by suspending civil rights. Then, too, there was the question of the hated draft for which he bore responsibility.

The tide only began to turn in Lincoln's favor when in 1863 the North, under Grant, successfully mauled its way through Mississippi and won significant victories. Those victories, plus the stunning Union success at Gettysburg, changed the perception of Lincoln, so that by late 1863--the time of the Gettysburg address--some said he was clearly the most popular man in the nation.

However, mythology, also, has it that Lincoln scrawled his speech in hastily-prepared notes on the back of an envelope during the train ride from Washington. However, that is not it at all. Having taken the bold step of the Emancipation Proclamation earlier in the year, Lincoln had, thereby, changed Union war aims.

Initially the war was undertaken to save the Union and prevent slave states from simply dropping out in order to preserve slavery. However, Lincoln's views had changed somewhat by the mid-point of the war.

Now he saw the strategic significance of freeing slaves, not everywhere, but in those states waging war against the Union. However, this was a problematic stroke. For now Northerners might ask--is the purpose of the war to save the Union or is it to free the slaves?

Lincoln seized the opportunity offered by Gettysburg to clarify that issue. Thus, he wrote a number of drafts before he reached the brief--272 word speech(10 sentences) insisting on equality for all that he was to utter at Gettysburg.

On the day preceding the speech, accompanied by body guards, Lincoln boarded the train in Washington and reached Gettysburg late in the afternoon. Upon arrival, he was asked to say a few words. However, he demurred, commenting that he preferred to say nothing rather than say something foolish. A heckler cried out, implying that everything Lincoln said was foolish, but Lincoln still refused to speak.

The next morning, clad in a stovepipe hat and a dark suit, Lincoln mounted a horse that some thought far too small for his great height and rode the mile to the cemetery. His speech was preceded by a two-hour oration by

Edward Everett, a former president of Harvard and secretary of state under Millard Fillmore, outlining the progress of the war so far.

At last Lincoln rose to speak. His voice was high-pitched, but powerful, with a hint of a Kentucky accent. As photographers struggled to get the one existent picture of Lincoln and the audience settled in for an extended speech, Lincoln finished delivering his brief remarks and sat down to tepid applause.

Afterwards Lincoln was to say to his friend, Ward Lamon, "Those remarks won't scour," i.e. the speech was not a success. The Harrisburg Union agreed referring to the "silly remarks of the President." (Braden 82)

History's verdict was different, however. Perhaps the enduring power of the speech was as a literary document, for as the text of Lincoln's remarks appeared in newspapers across the land, there was a growing sense of approbation in the nation's newspapers for what Lincoln had said.

The speech itself is a tiny masterpiece. Using elevated language, for example, "four score and seven years ago" rather than 87 years ago, and classical rhetorical devices such as parallelism--"government of the people, by the people, and for the people or "can not dedicate, can not consecrate, can not hallow" and antithesis "little note, nor long remember," Lincoln managed to say volumes in only a few words.

Interestingly, he made no direct references to the Confederacy or the final disposition of the war; rather he contented himself with a call to the nation's highest ideals, making it clear that the aim of the war was no longer simply salvation of the union, but rather pursuit of a new vision of equality for all.

It was that very appeal to equality that inflamed some of the most vocal critics of Lincoln's speech, for example, the New York World howled in outrage that the Constitution said nothing about equality (Donald 465); thus, suggesting Lincoln had far overstepped the boundaries of his Presidential powers. However, it seems history has had a different verdict.


Braden, Waldo W. Abraham Lincoln: Public Speaker. Louisiana State Univ. Press. Baton Rouge. 1988.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. Simon and Schuster. New York. 1995.

Jordan, Wintrhop D. et al. The United States. 5th ed. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, 1982.

© High Speed Ventures 2011