By the morning of November 18, President Abraham Lincoln had contracted varioloid, or a mild smallpox, and his son Tad was very ill. But the president refused to cancel his plans to attend the dedication of the new Gettysburg National Cemetery. First Lady Mary Lincoln, having lost two young sons already, became hysterical at the prospect of losing a third while her husband was away.
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had scheduled a special train to take Lincoln to the ceremony on the 19th and bring him back to Washington that same day, but Lincoln told him, “I do not like this arrangement. I do not wish to so go that by the slightest accident we fail entirely; and, at the best, the whole to be a mere breathless running of the gauntlet. But any way.”
Stanton instead booked a special four-car train to leave Washington at noon on the 18th. Lincoln left with his three most conservative cabinet members: Secretary of State William H. Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and Interior Secretary John P. Usher. Other travelers included Lincoln’s secretaries John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s manservant William Johnson, Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, and Benjamin B. French, who had written a hymn for the event. Military officers, foreign dignitaries, newspaper correspondents, the Marine Corps Band, and the Invalid Corps also joined the presidential party.
The train stopped at Baltimore, where it had to be pulled by horses from Camden Station to Bolton Station. It then continued to Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania, where Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin boarded. During a brief stop at Hanover, Lincoln posed for a photograph by Mathew Brady and addressed a gathering crowd: “Well, you had the rebels here last summer. Did you fight them any? I trust when the enemy was here, the citizens of Hanover were loyal to our country and the stars and stripes. If you are not all true patriots in support of the union, you should be.”
As the train was about to leave, Lincoln said, “Well, you have seen me, and, according to general experience, you have seen less than you expected to see.” The train reached Gettysburg around 6 p.m., where it was greeted by event organizer and local attorney David Wills, and keynote speaker Edward Everett. They handed Lincoln an encouraging telegram from Stanton: “Mrs. Lincoln informed me that your son is better this evening.” Lincoln went with them to Wills’s mansion, where they would be spending the night.
The town was crowded with visitors fueled by patriotic enthusiasm. Word quickly spread that Lincoln and other Washington luminaries were in town, and people soon gathered to serenade the president, joined by the 5th New York Artillery Band. When they called on Lincoln to give a speech, he came out and said:
“I appear before you, fellow-citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.”
A man shouted, “If you can help it!” Lincoln continued, “It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.” The group then moved on to Seward, who came out and obliged them with a speech. Seward lauded the United States as “the richest, the broadest, the most beautiful, the most magnificent, and capable of a great destiny, that has ever been given to any part of the human race.”
Some time that night, Lincoln finished writing the address he would deliver the next day.
- Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Hoffsommer, Richard D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.