Four Authors of the
American Civil War:
Excerpts From Their Work
3. Carl Sandburg
3. Carl Sandburg: “Lincoln Speaks at Gettysburg”
The biography is not regarded as scholarly history, but it has many scholarly admirers: “The most imaginative and humanly flavorful of all the (Lincoln) biographies,” writes historian David Herbert Donald in the bibliographic note of his excellent “Lincoln” (1995); “a noble monument to American literature,” wrote historian Charles Beard in 1940.
“The Prairie Years” was published in two volumes in 1926; “The War Years” came out in four volumes in 1939; a one-volume edition of “The Prairie Years” and “The War Years” was published in 1954. – H.F.
Lincoln Speaks at Gettysburg
By Carl Sandburg
Chapter 38 of “Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years and the War Years” (1954; a one-volume abridgement of his multi-volume work).
A printed invitation notified Lincoln that on Thursday, November 19, 1863, exercises would be held for the dedication of National Soldiers’ Cemetery at Gettysburg.
The duties of orator of the day had fallen on Edward Everett. Born in 1794, he had been U.S. Senator, governor of Massachusetts, member of congress, Secretary of State under Fillmore, Minister to Great Britain, Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard, professor of Greek at Harvard, president of Harvard. His wife was Charlotte Gray Brooks, daughter of Peter Chardon Brooks, first of American marine and life-insurance millionaires. Serene stars had watched over their home life and children until Everett’s wife was sent to a private retreat, incurably insane. A lifelong friendship took root between him and her father; they shared a sorrow.
The Union of States was a holy concept to Everett, and the slavery issue secondary, though when president of Harvard from 1846 to 1849 he refused to draw the color line, saying in the case of Negro applicant, Beverly Williams, that “If this boy passes the examinations, he will be admitted.” Not often was he so provocative. Suave, handsomely venerable in his 69th year, Everett was a natural choice of the Pennsylvania commissioners. He notified them that he would appear for the Gettysburg dedication November 19.
Lincoln meanwhile, in reply to the printed invitation, sent word to the commissioners that he would be present at the ceremonies. The commissioners then considered whether the President should be asked to deliver an address. Clark E. Carr of Galesburg, Illinois, representing his state on the Board of Commissioners, noted that the decision of the board to invite Lincoln to speak was “an afterthought.”
David Wills of Gettysburg, as the special agent of Governor Curtin and also acting for the several states, by letter informed Lincoln, “….I am authorized by the Governors of the various States to invite you to be present and participate in these ceremonies….It is the desire that after the oration, you, as chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.” “The invitation,” wrote Carr, “was not settled upon and sent to Mr. Lincoln until the second of November, more than six weeks after Mr. Everett had been invited to speak, and but little more than two weeks before the exercises were held.”
Lamon noted that Lincoln wrote part of his intended Gettysburg address in Washington, covered a sheet of foolscap paper with a memorandum of it, and before taking it out of his hat and reading it to Lamon he said it was not at all satisfactory to him. He had been too busy to give it the time he would like to.
The armies of Meade and Grant required attention. And there were such unforeseen affairs as the marriage of Kate Chase, daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury, at the most brilliant wedding the new Northern regime had as yet put on in Washington. The bridegroom was William Sprague of Rhode Island, handsome of figure, an heir of wealth, iron and textile manufacturer, railroad and bank president, artillery office with a record of a horse shot from under him at Bull Run, U.S. Senator by election in the spring of ’63. He was 33 years old, had paid $11,000 for one of his string of horses, and his bride of 28 had beauty plus wit and a gift for politics. Lincoln, attending alone, and bringing a dainty fan as a present for the bride, probably went because that was better than to let talk run as to why he did not go. He dropped in and left early
Two men, in the weeks just before the Gettysburg ceremonies, had done their best to make him see himself as a world spokesman of democracy, popular government, the mass of people as opposed to aristocrats, classes and special interests. John Murray Forbes, having read Lincoln’s lively stump-speech letter to the Springfield, Illinois, mass meeting, wrote to Sumner September 3, “I delight in the President’s plain letter to plain people!” Forbes followed this five days later with a letter which Sumner carried to the White House and handed to Lincoln.
An aristocracy ruled the South and controlled it for war, believed Forbes, pointing to “the aristocratic class who own twenty negroes and upwards” as numbering “about 28,000 persons, which is about the 178th part of 5,000,000” whites. So Forbes urged, “Let the people North and South see this line clearly defined between the people and the aristocrats, and the war will be over! Bonaparte, when under the republic, fighting despots of Europe, did as much by his bulletins as he did by his bayonets. You,” Forbes urged the President, “have the same opportunity….My suggestion, then, is that you should seize an early opportunity and any subsequent chance, to teach your great audience of plain people that the war is not the North against the South, but the people against the aristocrats.”
This same idea Forbes wrote to William Evans, an English liberal, who was to call on the President. “I wish you could make him see and feel,” said Forbes, “that you and Bright and others represent the democratic element in Great Britain, and that you look upon him as fighting the battle of democracy for all the world! I wish our people understood this as well as yours do!” And William Evans after seeing Lincoln wrote Forbes November 3: “Your suggestions were duly attended to.
Thus while Lincoln shaped his speech to be made at Gettysburg he did not lack specific advice to stand up and be a world spokesman. Some newspapers now had it that the President was going to make a stump speech over the graves of the Gettysburg dead as a political play. Talk ran in Washington that by attending Governor Curtin’s “show” the President would strengthen himself with the Curtin faction without alienating the opposing Cameron clique.
Though the Gettysburg dedication was to be under interstate auspices, it had tremendous national significance for Lincoln; on the platform would be the state governors whose co-operation with him was of vast importance. Also widely mouthed and printed had been the slander and libel that on his visit to the battlefield of Antietam nearly a year before he had laughed obscenely at his own funny stories and called on Lamon to sing a cheap comic song. Perhaps he might go to Gettysburg and let it be seen how he demeaned himself on a somber landscape of sacrifice.
His personal touch with Gettysburg, by telegraph, mail, courier and by a throng of associations, made it a place of great realities to him. Just after the battle there, a woman had come to his office, the doorman saying she had been “crying and taking on” for several days trying to see the President. Her husband and three sons were in the army. On part of her husband’s pay she had lived for a time, till money from him stopped coming. She was hard put to scrape a living and needed one of her boys to help.
The President listened to her, standing at a fireplace, hands behind him, head bowed, motionless. The woman finished her plea. Slowly and almost as if talking to himself alone the words came and only those words: “I have two, and you have none.” He crossed the room, wrote an order for the military discharge of one of her sons. On a special sheet of paper he wrote full and detailed instructions where to go and what to say in order to get her boy back.
In a few days the doorman told the President the same woman was again on hand crying and taking on. “Let her in,” was the word. She had found doors opening to her and officials ready to help on seeing the President’s written words she carried. She had located her boy’s camp, regiment, company. She had found him, yes, wounded at Gettysburg, dying in a hospital, and had followed him to the grave. And, she begged, would the President now give her the next one of her boys?
As before he stood at the fireplace, hands behind him, head bent low, motionless. Slowly and almost as if talking to himself alone the words came and as before only those words: “I have two, and you have none.” He crossed the room to his desk and began writing. As though nothing else was to do she followed, stood by his chair as he wrote, put her hand on the President’s head, smoothed his thick and disorderly hair with motherly fingers. He signed an order giving her the next of her boys, stood up, put the priceless paper in her hand as he choked out the one word, “There!” and with long quick steps was gone from the room with her sobs and cries of thanks in his ears.
Thus the Kentuckian, James Speed, gathered the incident and told it. By many strange ways Gettysburg was to Lincoln a fact in crimson mist.
Thaddeus Stevens said in November ’63 that Lincoln was a “dead card” in the political deck. He favored Chase as a more thoroughgoing antislavery man for the next President, and hearing that Lincoln and Seward were going to Gettysburg, but not Chase, he clipped his words, “The dead going to eulogize the dead.”
On November 17 the President issued a little proclamation fixing a township line “within the city of Omaha” as the starting point for the Union Pacific Railway. Congress had made it his duty to do this.
The Gettysburg speech was shaping at the same time that Lincoln was preparing his annual message to Congress, assembling it in less than three weeks. In that message he would point to “actual commencement of work upon the Pacific railroad,” his own act of fixing an initial point being the most tangible part of the commencement.
When Lincoln boarded the train for Gettysburg November 18, his best chum in the world, Tad, lay sick abed and the doctors not sure what ailed him. The mother still mourned for Willie and was hysterical about Tad. But the President felt imperative duty called him to Gettysburg.
Provost Marshal General Fry as a War Department escort came to the White House, but the President was late in getting into the carriage for the drive to the station. They had no time to lose, Fry remarked. Lincoln said he felt like an Illinois man who was going to be hanged and as the man passed along the road on the way to the gallows the crowds kept pushing into the way and blocking passage. The condemned man at last called out, “Boys, you needn’t be in such a hurry to get ahead, there won’t be any fun till I get there”.
Flags and red, white and blue bunting decorated the four-car special train. Aboard were three Cabinet members, Seward, Usher and Blair, Nicolay and Hay, Army and Navy representatives, newspapermen, the French and Italian Ministers and attaches. The rear third of the last coach had a drawing room, where from time to time the President talked with nearly everyone aboard as they came and went. Approaching Hanover Junction, he arose and said, “Gentlemen, this is all very pleasant, but the people will expect me to say something to them tomorrow, and I must give the matter some thought.” He then returned to the rear room of the car.
An elderly gentleman got on the train and, shaking hands, told the President he had lost a son at Little Round Top at Gettysburg. The President answered he feared a visit to that spot would open fresh wounds, and yet if the end of sacrifice had been reached “we could give thanks even amidst our tears.” They quoted from his unburdening to this old man: “When I think of the sacrifices of life yet to be offered, and the hearts and homes yet to be made desolate before this dreadful war is over, my heart is like lead within me, and I feel at times like hiding in deep darkness.” At one stop a little girl lifted to an open window thrust a bunch of rosebuds into the car. “Flowerth for the President.” Lincoln steeped over, bent down, kissed her face. “You are a little rosebud yourself.”
At sundown the train pulled into Gettysburg and Lincoln was driven to the Wills residence. A sleepy little country town of 3,500 was overflowing with human pulses again. Private homes were filled with notables and non-descripts. Hundreds slept on the floors of hotels. Military bands blared till late in the night serenading whomsoever. The weather was mild and the moon up for those who chose to go a-roaming. Serenaders called on the President and heard him: “In my position it is sometimes important that I should not say foolish things. (A voice: “If you can help it.”) 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.”
At dinner in the Wills home that evening Lincoln met Edward Everett, Governor Curtin and others. About 11 o’clock, he gathered his sheets of paper and went next door for a half-hour with his Secretary of State. Whether Seward made slight or material alterations in the text was known only to Lincoln and Seward. It was midnight or later that Lincoln went to sleep. He slept better for having a telegram from Stanton reporting there was no real war news and “On inquiry Mrs. Lincoln informs me that your son is better this evening.”
Fifteen thousand, some said 30,000 or 50,000, people were on Cemetery Hill for the exercises next day when the procession from Gettysburg arrived afoot and horseback – members of the U.S. Government, the Army and Navy, governors of states, mayors of cities, a regiment of troops, hospital corps, telegraph company representatives, Knights Templar, Masonic Fraternity, Odd Fellows and other benevolent associations, the press, fire departments, citizens of Pennsylvania and other states. At ten o’clock Lincoln in a black suit, high silk hat and white gloves came out of the Wills residence, mounted a horse, and held a reception on horseback. At 11 the parade began to move. Clark E. Carr, just behind the President, believed he noticed that the President sat erect and looked majestic to begin with and then got to thinking so that his body leaned forward, his arms hung limp, his head bent far down.
A long telegram from Stanton at ten o’clock had been handed him. Burnside seemed safe though threatened at Knoxville, Grant was starting a big battle at Chattanooga, and “Mrs. Lincoln reports your son’s health as a great deal better and he will be out today.”
The march began. “Mr. Lincoln was mounted upon a young and beautiful chestnut horse, the largest in the Cumberland Valley,” wrote Lieutenant Cochrane. This seemed the first occasion that anyone had looked at the President mounted with a feeling that just the right horse had been picked to match his physical length.
The march was over in 15 minutes. But Mr. Everett, the orator of the day, had not arrived. Bands played till noon. Mr. Everett arrived. On the platform sat Governors Curtin of Pennsylvania, Bradford of Maryland, Morton of Indiana, Seymour of New York, Parker of New Jersey, Dennison of Ohio, with ex-Governor Tod and Governor-elect Brough of Ohio, Edward Everett and his daughter, Major Generals Schenck, Stahel, Doubleday and Couch, Brigadier General Gibbon and Provost Marshal General Fry, foreign Ministers, members of Congress, Colonel Ward Hill Lamon, Secretary Usher, and the President of the United States with Secretary Seward and Postmaster General Blair immediately at his left.
The U.S. House chaplain, the Reverend Thomas H. Stockton, offered a prayer while the thousands stood with uncovered heads. Benjamin B. French, officer in charge of buildings in Washington, introduced the Honorable Edward Everett, who rose, bowed low to Lincoln, saying, “Mr. President.” Lincoln responded, “Mr. Everett.”
The orator of the day then stood in silence before a crowd that stretched to limits that would test his voice. Beyond and around were the wheat fields, the meadows, the peach orchards, long slopes of land, and five and seven miles further the contemplative blue ridge of a low mountain range. His eyes could sweep all this as he faced the audience. He had taken note of it in his prepared address. “Overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature…As my eye ranges over the fields whose sods were so lately moistened by the blood of gallant and loyal men, I feel, as never before, how truly it was said of old that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country.”
He gave an outline of how the war began, traversed decisive features of the three days’ battles at Gettysburg, discussed the doctrine of state sovereignty and denounced it, drew parallels from European history, and came to his peroration quoting Pericles on dead patriots: “The whole earth is the sepulchre of illustrious men.” He had spoken for one hour and 57 minutes, some said a trifle over two hours, repeating almost word for word an address that occupied nearly two newspaper pages.
Everett came to his closing sentence without a faltering voice: “Down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates THE BATTLES OF GETTYSBURG.” It was the effort of his life and embodied the perfections of the school of oratory in which he had spent his career. His poise, and chiefly some quality of inside goodheartedness, held most of his audience to him.
The Baltimore Glee Club sang an ode written for the occasion by Benjamin B. French. Having read Everett’s address, Lincoln knew when the moment drew near for him to speak. He took out his own manuscript from a coat pocket, put on his steel-bowed glasses, stirred in his chair, looked over the manuscript, and put it back in his pocket. The Baltimore Glee Club finished. Ward Hill Lamon rose and spoke the words “The President of the United States,” who rose, and holding in one hand the two sheets of paper at which he occasionally glanced, delivered the address in his high-pitched and clear-carrying voice. The Cincinnati Commercial reporter wrote, “The President rises slowly, draws from his pocket a paper, and, when commotion subsides, in a sharp, unmusical treble voice, reads the brief and pithy remarks.” He wrote in his diary, “The President, in a firm, free way, with more grace than is his wont, said his half dozen words of consecration.” Charles Hale of the Boston Advertiser, also officially representing Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, had notebook and pencil in hand, took down the slow-spoken words of the President.
Fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon 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 are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place of those who have given 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 power to add or to detract.
The world will very 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 that they have thus far so nobly carried on. 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 here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
In the written copy of his speech from which he read Lincoln used the phrase “our poor power.” In other copies of the speech which he wrote out later he again used the phrase “our poor power.” So it was evident that he meant to use the word “poor” when speaking to his audience, but he omitted it. Also in the copy held in his hands while facing the audience he had not written the words “under God,” though he did speak those words and include them in later copies which he wrote. Therefore the words “under God” were decided upon after he wrote the text the night before at the Wills residence.
The New York Tribune and many other newspapers indicated “(Applause.)” at five places in the address and “(Long continued applause.)” at the end. The applause, however, according to most of the responsible witnesses, was formal, a tribute to the occasion. Ten sentences had been spoken in less than three minutes. A photographer had made ready to record a great historic moment, had bustled about with his dry plates, his black box on a tripod, and before he had his head under the hood for an exposure, the President had said “by the people, for the people” and the nick of time was past for a photograph.
The New York Tribune man and other like observers merely reported the words of the address with the one preceding sentence: “The dedicatory remarks were then delivered by the President.” Strictly, no address as such was on the program from him. He was down for a few “dedicatory remarks.” Lamon wrote that Lincoln told him just after delivering the speech that he had regret over not having prepared it with greater care. “Lamon, that speech won’t scour. It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed.” On the farms where Lincoln grew up, when wet soil stuck to the mold board of a plow they said it didn’t “scour.”
The nearby Patriot and Union of Harrisburg took its fling: “The President succeeded on this occasion because he acted without sense and without constraint in a panorama that was gotten up more for the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead…We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.”
The Chicago Times held that “Mr. Lincoln did most foully traduce the motives of the men who were slain at Gettysburg” in his reference to “a new birth of freedom,” adding, “They gave their lives to maintain the old government, and the only Constitution and Union…The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dish-watery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”
The Chicago Tribune had a reporter who telegraphed (unless some editor who read the address added his own independent opinion) a sentence: “The dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of man.” The Cincinnati Gazette reporter added after the text of the address, “That this was the right thing in the right place, and a perfect thing in every respect, was the universal encomium.”
The American correspondent of the London Times wrote that “the ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the sallies of that poor President Lincoln…Anything more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.” Count Gurowski wrote in his diary, “Lincoln spoke, with one eye to a future platform and to re-election.”
The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin said thousands who would not read the elaborate oration of Mr. Everett would read the President’s few words “and not many will do it without a moistening of the eye and a swelling of the heart.” The Providence Journal reminded readers of the saying that the hardest thing in the world is to make a good five-minute speech: “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one which the President made at the close of Mr. Everett’s oration.”
Lincoln had spoken of an idea, a proposition, a concept, worth dying for, which brought from a Richmond newspaper a countering question and answer, “For what are we fighting? An abstraction.”
The Springfield Republican comment ran: “Surpassingly fine as Mr. Everett’s oration was in the Gettysburg consecration, the rhetorical honors of the occasion were won by President Lincoln. His little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma. Then it has the merit of unexpectedness in its verbal perfection and beauty. We had grown so accustomed to homely and imperfect phrase in his productions that we had come to think it was the law of his utterance. But this shows he can talk handsomely as well as act sensibly. Turn back and read it over, it will repay study as a model speech.”
“The Lounger” in Harper’s Weekly inquired why the ceremony at Gettysburg was one of the most striking events of the war. “The President and the cabinet were there, with famous soldiers and civilians. The oration by Mr. Everett was smooth and cold….The few words of the President were from the heart. They can not be read, even, without kindling emotion. ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.’ It was as simple and felicitous and earnest a word as was ever spoken.”
Everett’s opinion was written to Lincoln the next day: “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.” Lincoln’s immediate reply was: “In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”
At Everett’s request Lincoln wrote with pen and ink a copy of his Gettysburg Address, and the manuscript was auctioned at a Sanitary Fair in New York for the benefit of soldiers. On request of George Bancroft, the historian, he wrote another copy for a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Fair at Baltimore. He wrote still another to be lithographed as a facsimile in a publication, Autographed Leaves of Our Country’s Authors. For Mr. Wills, his host at Gettysburg, he wrote another. The first draft, written in Washington, and the second one, held while delivering it, went into Hay’s hands to be eventually presented to the Library of Congress.
The ride to Washington took until midnight. Lincoln was weary, talked little, stretched out on one of the side seats in the drawing room and had a wet towel laid across his eyes and forehead.
He had stood that day, the world’s foremost spokesman of popular government, saying that democracy was yet worth fighting for. What he meant by “a new birth of freedom” for the nation could have a thousand interpretations. The taller riddles of democracy stood up out of the address. It had the dream touch of vast and furious events epitomized for any foreteller to read what was to come. His cadences sang the ancient song that where there is freedom men have fought and sacrificed for it, and that freedom is worth men’s dying for. For the first time since he became President he had on a dramatic occasion declaimed, howsoever it might be read, Jefferson’s proposition which had been a slogan of the Revolutionary War – “All men are created equal” – leaving no other inference than that he regarded the Negro slave as a man. His outwardly smooth sentences were inside of them gnarled and tough with the enigmas of the American experiment.
Back at Gettysburg the blue haze of the Cumberland Mountains had dimmed till they were a blur in a nocturne. The moon was up and fell with a bland golden benevolence on the new-made graves of soldiers, on the sepulchers of old settlers, on the horse carcasses of which the onrush of war had not yet permitted removal. The New York Herald man walked amid them and ended the story he sent his paper: “The air, the trees, the graves are silent. Even the relic hunters are gone now. And the soldiers here never wake to the sound of reveille.”
In many a country cottage over the land, a tall old clock in a quiet corner told time in a tick-tock deliberation. Whether the orchard branches hung with pink-spray blossoms or icicles of sleet, whether the outside news was seedtime or harvest, rain or drouth, births or deaths, the swing of the pendulum was right and left and right and left in a tick-tock deliberation.
The face and dial of the clock had known the eyes of a boy who listened to its tick-tock and learned to read its minute and hour hands. And the boy had seen years measured off by the swinging pendulum, had grown to man size, had gone away. And the people in the cottage knew that the clock would stand there and the boy would never again come into the room and look at the clock with the query, “What is the time?”
In a row of graves of the Unidentified the boy would sleep long in the dedicated final resting place at Gettysburg. Why he had gone away and why he would never come back had roots in some mystery of flags and drums, of national fate in which individuals sink as in a deep sea, of men swallowed and vanished in a man-made storm of smoke and steel.
The mystery deepened and moved with ancient music and inviolable consolation because a solemn Man of Authority had stood at the graves of the Unidentified and spoken the words “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….from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
To the backward and forward pendulum swing of a tall old clock in a quiet corner they might read those cadenced words while outside the windows the first flurry of snow blew across the orchard and down over the meadow, the beginnings of winter in a gun-metal gloaming to be later arched with a star-flung sky. ●