President Lincoln was the special guest of David Wills, the 32-year-old lawyer whose house faced the town square. Wills had invited Lincoln to give concluding "remarks" at the dedication ceremony, following the principal address by Edward Everett. Wills helped arrange the cemetery and its dedication on November 19, 1863, on land purchased by Pennsylvania to honor the Union dead.
Although President Lincoln spent only 24 hours in Gettysburg, he, too, changed the town's history. He was so anxious to keep his commitment that he arrived the night before the dedication on a special train. While Lincoln, Everett, and other dignitaries dined at the Wills house, exhuberant crowds gathered outside, calling for the President. Lincoln greeted them briefly but begged off speechmaking. A White House secretary noted, "The President appeared at the door and said half a dozen words meaning nothing & went in."
Early on dedication day President Lincoln visited part of the battlefield near the Seminary with Secretary of State William Seward. Later that morning Lincoln rode in a large procession from the Wills house about one mile to the cemetery dedication site. A resident on the parade route reported that Lincoln bowed "with a modest smile and uncovered his head to the throng of women, men and children that greeted him from the doors and windows."
Once the procession reached the cemetery, the brokenness of the battlefield was readily apparent. An eyewitness recalled, "all about were traces of the fierce conflict. Rifle pits, cut and scarred trees, broken fences, pieces of artillery wagons and harness, scraps of blue and gray clothing, bent canteens..."
When Lincoln rose to speak, he faced from 10,000 to 20,000 people gathered around Cemetery Hill, the site of heavy Confederate bombardment during the battle. The new Soldiers Cemetery lay adjacent to the old town cemetery where a pre-war sign ironically declared: "All persons found using firearms on these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law."
We now call Lincoln's speech The Gettysburg Address as if it was the only speech delivered that day. That's a misnomer because David Wills assigned the main address to Everett, a nationally famous speaker. The official program listed Everett as the Oration speaker and Lincoln as the giver of Dedicatory Remarks.
Everett's speech, which lasted two hours, was expected to run long, although it caused the crowd to grow restless. A New York Times reporter noticed that during its delivery, "there were as many people wandering about the fields, made memorable by the fierce struggles of July, as stood around the stand listening to his eloquent speech."
Despite popular stories, historians agree that Lincoln did not whip up his "remarks" on the back of an envelope enroute from Washington. His effort was the product of a lifetime from a man known for study and deep reflection. He wrote at least half or more of it on White House stationery before his trip, and apparently applied finishing touches in his room at the Wills house. Lincoln, ever a painstaking writer, also knew that words from his presidential pen would be highly scrutinized.
Because Lincoln's Gettysburg work has become so famous, sometimes it is assumed that he always gave short, pithy speeches. By looking at his previous speeches we can see that the reverse is far more typical. A quick check of sources such as The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln will reveal this. For example, in 1858 a Chicago newspaper reporter remarked, "Of his speech I will only say that it lasted three hours, and that during all that time the whole audience seemed perfectly wrapt in attention, and that in power, pathos, and eloquence, I have never heard it equalled."
How the Speech was Received
What did people think of the speech in Lincoln's day? According to a New York Times article, his delivery was interrupted five times by applause and greeted with "long continued applause" at its conclusion. Outside of Gettysburg, the speech received mixed reviews from newspapers of the day, which were even more highly partisan than they are today. Northern papers both praised and attacked it, while Southern papers predictably denounced it. Various versions of the speech's text were carried by newspapers.
Eyewitnesses, too, gave conflicting reports, but mostly about the amount of applause and whether or not Lincoln read from a manuscript. E.W. Andrews, the aide of a Union general, sat near the speakers' platform. He recalled that Lincoln "came out before the vast assembly, and stepped slowly to the front of the platform, with his hands clasped before him, his natural sadness of expression deepened, his head bowed forward, and his eyes cast to the ground." Andrews said "the great assembly listened almost awe-struck as to a voice from the divine oracle."
Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, who sat on the speakers' platform, enthused, "It was so Impressive! It was the common remark of everybody. Such a speech, as they said it was! Everett and all went up and congratulated the President, shaking him by the hand."
Everett wrote Lincoln a brief note the next day, requesting a copy of the speech and covering it with praise: "Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the cemetery. 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 graciously replied, "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."
Benjamin French, who helped plan the dedication, wrote in his diary, "Anyone who saw & heard as I did, the hurricane of applause that met his every movement at Gettysburg would know that he lived in every heart. It was no cold, faint, shadow of a kind reception -- it was a tumultuous outpouring of exultation, from true and loving hearts, at the sight of a man whom everyone knew to be honest and true and sincere in every act of his life, and every pulsation of his heart. It was the spontaneous outburst of heartfelt confidence in their own President."
After the cemetery dedication, Lincoln returned to the Wills House for a late lunch, followed by a public reception. There he met John L. Burns, the fiesty 69-year-old Gettysburg shoemaker who already had become famous for picking up a rifle and joining Union troops on July 1, receiving several wounds. Lincoln walked down Baltimore Street with Burns to the last event of the day at the Gettysburg Presbyterian Church. Here they heard a speech by Charles Anderson, Lieutenant Governor of Ohio. The president then hurried off to the train station and his duties in Washington.
The Soldiers Cemetery
Shortly before Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg he saw the plan for the cemetery. The landscape architect was William Saunders, a Department of Agriculture employee who brought his plan to the White House. Saunders had created a design which placed the graves in big sweeping curves, giving equal treatment to each state and soldier represented.
Saunders recalled, "I was on hand at the appointed time, and spread the plan on his office table. He took much interest in it, asked about its surroundings, about Culp's Hill, Round Top, etc., and seemed familiar with the topography of the place although he had never been there. He was much pleased with the method of the graves, said it differed from the ordinary cemetery..."
In 1866 Benjamin French returned to Gettysburg and visited the Soldiers Cemetery. He recorded in his diary being "much gratified at seeing how elegantly and permanently it is arranged. The segments of circles where our brave boys 'sleep their last sleep,' are admirably laid out, and the granite on which are the inscriptions being cut upon the top. It looks as if it would last forever."
Today the Gettysburg National Cemetery remains the picture of serenity, serving as the burial ground for American veterans from all major wars and conflicts. Its focal point is the Soldiers National Monument, pictured above, with figures representing War, Peace, History and Plenty.
© Abraham Lincoln Online
| Experienced travelers recommend seeing Gettysburg more than once. It's hard not to resist this quaint town and the haunting battlefield which stretches for miles. You can follow the route Lincoln took from the train station to the Wills House and up Baltimore Street toward the cemetery, passing by many 19th-century buildings.|
In the downtown square -- also called the Diamond, but more of a traffic circle -- you can see the Wills House where Lincoln stayed. The building has been restored by the National Park Service and is now open to the public.
You can tour the town and battlefield by foot, car or bus. A good starting point is the National Park Service visitor center on the battlefield grounds. It offers information about tours, museum displays, films, and the restored cyclorama, which depicts battle movements.
A Teacher's Tour of the Battle of Gettysburg (Matthew Pinsker/Gilder Lehrman Institute)
Battlefield Maps (Library of Congress)
Civil War Institute (Gettysburg College)
Edward Everett's Gettysburg Speech (University of Maryland)
Gettysburg Address Exhibit (Library of Congress)
Gettysburg Address Eyewitness (National Public Radio)
Gettysburg Address News Article (New York Times)
Gettysburg Address Teacher Resource (C-SPAN)
Gettysburg Address Text
Gettysburg Civil War Photographs (Library of Congress)
Gettysburg Discussion Group (Bob & Dennis Lawrence)
Gettysburg National Military Park (NPS)
How Some Few "Remarks" Became the Gettysburg Address (LAP/ALI)
David Wills's Letter of Invitation to Lincoln (Library of Congress)
Lincoln and the Gettysburg Awakening (JALA)
Lincoln and Gettysburg Timeline
Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania
Lincoln's Invitation to Stay Overnight (Library of Congress)
Edward Everett's Letter to Lincoln (Library of Congress)
Photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg (Library of Congress)
Reading of the Gettysburg Address (NPR)
Recollections of Lincoln at Gettysburg (Bob Cooke)
Response to a Serenade
Robert Todd Lincoln's "Gettysburg Story" (JALA)
Seminary Ridge Museum
Solving the Mysteries of the Gettysburg Address (LAP/ALI)
The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation (Peter Norvig)
Who Stole the Gettysburg Address? (JALA)
From July 1 to July 3, 1863, the invading forces of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army clashed with the Army of the Potomac (under its newly appointed leader, General George G. Meade) at Gettysburg, some 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Casualties were high on both sides: Out of roughly 170,000 Union and Confederate soldiers, there were 23,000 Union casualties (more than one-quarter of the army’s effective forces) and 28,000 Confederates killed, wounded or missing (more than a third of Lee’s army). After three days of battle, Lee retreated towards Virginia on the night of July 4. It was a crushing defeat for the Confederacy, and a month later the great general would offer Confederate President Jefferson Davis his resignation; Davis refused to accept it.
Did You Know?
Edward Everett, the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony of the National Cemetery of Gettysburg, later wrote to Lincoln, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."
As after previous battles, thousands of Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg were quickly buried, many in poorly marked graves. In the months that followed, however, local attorney David Wills spearheaded efforts to create a national cemetery at Gettysburg. Wills and the Gettysburg Cemetery Commission originally set October 23 as the date for the cemetery’s dedication, but delayed it to mid-November after their choice for speaker, Edward Everett, said he needed more time to prepare. Everett, the former president of Harvard College, former U.S. senator and former secretary of state, was at the time one of the country’s leading orators. On November 2, just weeks before the event, Wills extended an invitation to President Lincoln, asking him “formally [to] set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”