Over 10,000 people came to witness the dedication of the new national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Many came to see the final resting place of their loved ones. Some thought the ceremony was macabre, as one Federal soldier remarked, “The skeletons of these brave men must be handled like the bones of so many horses, for a price, and wedged in like herrings in a box on a spot where there was no fighting–where there was no fighting–where none of them fell! It may be all right, but I do not see it.”
President Abraham Lincoln had been invited to make a “few appropriate remarks” at the ceremony. He left the home of event organizer David Wills, where he had spent the night, at 10 a.m. He wore a black suit, black stovepipe hat, and white gauntlets. He rode on horseback to the procession gathering at the town square; some remarked that the horse was too small for him. The procession included six governors along with many other statesmen, military officers, ambassadors, politicians, and public figures. The grand marshal was Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon.
The procession participants slowly marched to the new cemetery, less than a mile away. As many as 9,000 people formed a semicircle around a platform to witness the ceremony. Local merchants sold food, battle artifacts, and flowers. Lincoln chatted with the other dignitaries on the platform as they waited for keynote speaker Edward Everett to appear.
Upon Everett’s arrival, the ceremony began with a song played by Birgfeld’s Band of Philadelphia. Reverend Thomas Stockton, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, said a prayer in which he accused the Confederacy of being “prepared to cast a chain of Slavery around the form of Freedom, binding life and death together forever.” Stockton said that the Confederate victory on the first day at Gettysburg “was the mockery of God and man.”
After a song by the Marine Band, Everett rose and delivered a two-hour account of the battle. A correspondent noted, “The brave old statesman seemed imbued with the genius of oratory. His voice was clear, satisfying, every note in tune, no signs of age. He never hesitated for a word, and as his oration was historical, and argumentative, with no special flights of eloquence, showed a marvelous memory.”
Everett concluded by proclaiming that “there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg.” Benjamin B. French, the Commissioner of Public Buildings who oversaw the redecoration of the White House when the Lincolns moved in, sang a hymn he had written for the event. Someone reported that “the music ran on a bit.” Lamon then introduced the president.
Lincoln rose from his seat in the front row, “the large, bundled up figure untwisting and adjusting itself into reasonable conditions.” He “slowly adjusted his glasses, and took from his pocket what seemed to be a page of ordinary foolscap paper, quietly unfolded it, looked for the place, and began to read.”
Lincoln’s speech was less than two minutes long and contained just 272 words. He focused not on the specific battle, but instead on the war’s overall significance. He described the change in the war’s purpose from merely preserving the Union to preserving freedom for all Americans. Invoking the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln touched upon principles of equality and spoke of “a new birth of freedom.”
Because of the speech’s “almost shocking brevity,” many people held back their applause, thinking that more was coming. Photographers did not have time to capture the moment on film. Lincoln believed that his address was a “flat failure.” His secretary John Hay wrote, “Mr. Everett spoke as he always does, perfectly–and the President, in a fine, free way, with more grace than is his wont, said his half-dozen words of consecration, and the music wailed and we went home through crowded and cheering streets. And all the particulars are in the daily papers.”
After the ceremony, Lincoln dined at the home of David Wills, held an unscheduled reception, attended a patriotic gathering at the Presbyterian church, and finally left Gettysburg at 6:30 p.m. He returned to Washington around midnight, still ailing from a mild form of smallpox.
Opposition newspapers skewered the president’s address. Wilbur F. Storey of the Chicago Times wrote, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Storey called the address “a perversion of history so flagrant that the most extended charity cannot regard it as otherwise than willful.” He added that the soldiers fought at Gettysburg “to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it,” not to “dedicate the nation to ‘the proposition that all men are created equal.’”
The New York World pointed out that “this United States” was not created by the Declaration of Independence, but was “the result of the ratification of a compact known as the Constitution,” which offered no promise of social equality. Others argued that Lincoln hypocritically stressed a belief in government “of the people, by the people and for the people” while waging a war to deny those rights to southerners.
Conversely, most of the Republican press applauded Lincoln’s speech. The Chicago Tribune stated, “The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.” John W. Forney wrote in the Washington Chronicle that the speech, “though short, glittered with gems, evincing the gentleness and goodness of heart peculiar to him.”
According to the Providence Journal, “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made…(could) the most elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring, than those thrilling words of the President?” The Springfield Republican of Massachusetts called the “little speech… deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.” George W. Curtis of Harper’s Weekly wrote, “The few words of the President were from the heart to the heart… as simple and felicitous and earnest a word as was ever spoken.”
The day after the ceremony, Lincoln received a message from Everett: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Over time, the Gettysburg Address would become one of the most celebrated speeches in American history.
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