The Gettysburg Address, Part One (After Everett)
The 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 those rare films which feels longer than the actual events being recreated.
Whatever its other merits, it’s a painfully long film. Good golly, it’s long.
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.
The 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). The war was effectively decided that July, despite continuing for two more costly years.
No need to argue with the Okie faithful over the actual importance of Honey Springs; the other stuff had sufficient coattails to carry along few well-intentioned illusions.
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…
It 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, and the cause. Contrary to what modern minds might assume, he was by all accounts quite a hit. He was one of the best at that sort of thing, and his audience had what we used to call an “attention span”, with a side of “absolutely nothing better to do all day.”
President 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 some versions inspired by some vision of a dove swooping down to offer supernatural dictation) 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…”)**
The ‘holy inspiration’ myth speaks more to the power and seemingly supernatural impact of the speech in retrospect than it does anything founded 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 decades of hard work to get better at it. It included much study and a willingness to seek the constructive criticism of others qualified to help him get better.
So, there’s a lesson.
In case you don’t have the most important speech in all of American History still firmly 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 cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot 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.
Kinda gives you the goose shivers, don’t it?
It’s a speech worth breaking down and analyzing a bit more carefully, as long as in so doing it becomes richer and more meaningful – not less. But isn’t that always our goal with such things?