The Gettysburg Address: How it really happened (1863)

This newspaper story was published in Washington DC the day after the Gettysburg Address was delivered.

Apart from providing a detailed description of the ceremonies, this account also gives a different perspective on President Lincoln’s famous 2-minute speech: where the pauses fell, and when the crowd applauded. (Also worthy of note is the way the reporter so diplomatically described the previous speaker’s two hour long speech: “We regret that our limited space will not permit us to lay before our readers this splendid effort of Mr Everett.”)

Below the original news report, we have also included insight from a historian named Joseph Tausek. His account presents other perspectives (including what the President wore) as well as further insight into the President’s thoughts on how his speech was received. Finally, see a report from Colonel Clark E. Carr, a young man who attended the dedication ceremony. He offers his own unique point of view that, again, isn’t entirely in line with the newspaper story.

So what are the facts? Once you strip out the opinions, in all likelihood, each of the accounts probably carry part of the truth — particularly about how the audience responded and the statements made after the speech.

1921 Lincoln's immortal words

Gettysburg: Dedication of the National Cemetery

Imposing ceremonies & Oration of Honorable Edward Everett

Speech by the President

The consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, yesterday [Thursday, November 19, 1863], was a most imposing and highly impressive affair. The town was crowded on the previous evening, and the tired multitudes were obliged to sleep in the churches, in the parlors of the citizens, every available resting place being occupied.

During Wednesday evening, a great throng lingered around the residence of Mr David Wills, the hospitable entertainer of the President and his accompanying party, anxious to obtain a glimpse of the honored Chief Magistrate of the Nation. The band of the Fifth New York Artillery was brought into requisition, and serenaded the President soon after his arrival, and he made the following response:

“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 very substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make. [Laughter.] It is somewhat important in my position that one should not say any foolish things if he can help it, and it very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all. [Renewed laughter.]

“Believing that that is my precise position this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from saying ‘one word.'”

The President was most enthusiastically greeted, and when he retired, he did so amid prolonged applause.

The dedication ceremonies

On Thursday morning, the sun rose brightly, and after being temporarily obscured, smiled pleasantly throughout the day, and the ceremonies proceeded according to the program, under the direction of the Chief Marshal Ward H Lamon and his aides and the marshals appointed from the different States represented.

The assemblage

The whole neighboring population was poured into Gettysburg, and every train that had arrived for the last forty-eight hours, was loaded with passengers.

State, county and city officials, Governors, Legislators, municipal fathers and other civic functionaries, statesmen, philosophers, poets, editors, men of science, artisans, mechanics, tillers of the soil and navigators of the seas — all impelled by one common, patriotic desire to testify their loyal devotion to the National cause and their heartfelt respect for its fallen heroes.

MORE: Photos from the day of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863)

The procession

At 10 o’clock, the procession commenced moving over the route designated toward the cemetery. The military portion of the procession was headed by a squadron of cavalry, followed by Major General Couch and staff.

The 5th New York Artillery Regiment, from Baltimore, with their fine battery, were next in line, presenting a splendid appearance. General Schenck and staff were also present.

Next came the Marshal-in-Chief, Ward H Lamon, Esq, and his numerous staff of aides, wearing yellow and white scarfs with tri-colored rosettes on the breast, and black and white shoulder knots.

Next came the President of the United States, and Secretaries Seward, Usher, and Blair, all finely-mounted. The President wore a plain suit of black and white kid gauntlets. Great curiosity was manifested by the people everywhere to catch a glimpse at the Chief Magistrate.

The remainder of the procession was chiefly composed of various civic bodies.

The head of the procession reached the platform erected in the center of the cemetery a quarter before noon; but some time was consumed in assigning the different bodies their position round the stand; and it was not until after 12 o’clock that the President and others, assigned to seats upon the platform, were all in their places.

The ceremonies

All the arrangements having been finally completed with great order and decorum, B B French, Esq., acting as one of the Chief Marshal’s aides, gave the signal, and the solemn ceremonies were commences by the performance of a funeral dirge by the band, stationed in front of the platform.

A most impressive prayer was offered by Rev. Thomas H Stockton, chaplain of the House, during which the most profound silence prevailed and very many were affected to tears. The touching pathos of the venerable divine, the occasion and the scene presented, was at once most affecting, and not a few eyes not accustomed to weep were bathed in tears.

The President evidently felt deeply, and, with the venerable statesman and patriot, Hon. Edward Everett, who was by his side, made no effort to hide his emotion. The scene was a grand and imposing one. The battlefield lay like a panorama in full view, and the heroism there displayed on the opening of July seemed to be re-enacted in the imaginations of the beholders. The surrounding troops, the vast concourse, and the insignia of a nation’s mourning made up a scene that can never be forgotten by those who were present.

At the conclusion of the prayer, the band very appropriately performed the grand old hymn of Luther, “Old Hundred.”

Hon. B B French now introduced the Hon. Edward Everett, who advanced to the front of the platform and pronounced.

The oration

We regret that our limited space will not permit us to lay before our readers this splendid effort of Mr Everett. In it he gives a graphic and eloquent description of the battle of Gettysburg and an admirable dissertation upon the wicked rebellion of which it was one of the bloody fruits. The oration will be read with interest by every loyal man and woman in the land.

When Mr Everett had concluded, a hymn composed by Hon. B B French, was sung with excellent effect by the Baltimore Glee Club, after which, Marshal Lamon introduced to the assemblage the President of the United States, who delivered the following dedicatory remarks:

Speech of the President

“Four score 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. [Applause.] Now, we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any other nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war; we are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting place of 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. [Applause.] The world will little note nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here. [Applause.]

“It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. [Applause.] It is rather for us here to be 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 those dead shall not have died in vain. [Applause.] That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom; and that governments of the people, by the people and for the people, shal not perish from the earth.” [Long continued applause.]

>> See a handwritten version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

The end of the ceremonies

It was announced by B B French, Esq, that a letter had been received from Lieutenant General Scott regretting his inability to be present on the occasion.

After the ceremonies were concluded, a salute was fired by the artillery, and the military portion of the procession re-formed and escorted the President to his lodgings, where he was subsequently visited by a large number of persons, and for more than an hour was the victim of a “hands-shaking” that must have tested his good nature to the utmost. The President returned to Washington in a special train, which left Gettysburg about 7 o’clock.

MORE: The Battle of Gettysburg begins (1863)

Lincoln's address at Gettysburg

A historian’s perspective on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

From “The true story of the Gettysburg Address” by Joseph Tausek (published in 1933)

Many pages could be written concerning the effect of Lincoln’s address on the audience. There is a score of reputable witnesses who give conflicting accounts of what they saw and heard. Some aver that the President’s words were received in “hushed silence,” either because of their impressive solemnity, or that they did not realize that the President had concluded his remarks. Others are equally clear in their recollection that his utterances were loudly applauded.

Benjamin French, whose hymn was sung and who heard the address, three days after the event wrote in his diary, “Anyone who saw and heard the hurricane of applause that met his every word at Gettysburg, would know that he lived in every heart. . . .” Newspaper accounts published on the following day interpolated periodic applause.

“As a matter of fact,” comments Lamon, in his Recollections, “the silence during the delivery of the speech, and the lack of hearty demonstrations of approval immediately after its close, were taken by Mr. Lincoln as certain proof that it was not well received. In that opinion we all shared. . . . Mr. Lincoln said to me after our return to Washington, ‘I tell you, Hill, that speech fell on the audience like a wet blanket. I am distressed about it. I ought to have prepared it with more care.” Elsewhere, Lamon says, “He said to me on the stand, immediately after concluding the speech, ‘Lamon, that speech won’t scour! It is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed/ (The word ‘scour’ he often used in expressing his positive conviction that a thing lacked merit, or would not stand the test of close criticism or the wear of time.)”

In his diary of the memorable events of that day, John Hay made this illuminating entry: “In the morning, I got a beast and rode out with the P — and suite to the Cemetery in procession ; . . . and after a little delay Mr. E — took his place on the stand, — and Mr. Stockton made a prayer which thought it was an oration, — and Mr. E — spoke as he always does, perfectly; and the President, in a firm, free way, with more grace than is his wont, said his half dozen lines of consecration, — and the music wailed, and we went home through crowded and cheering streets.”

How different from this passing reference to one of the most momentous events in history, is the more mature judgment of Nicolay and Hay, in their monumental history of Lincoln and his time, recorded nearly thirty years later: “If there arose,” they write, “in the mind of any discriminating listener on the platform a passing doubt whether Mr. Lincoln would or could properly honor the unique occasion, that doubt vanished with the opening sentence; for then and there the President pronounced an address of dedication so pertinent, so brief yet so comprehensive, so terse yet so eloquent, linking the deeds of the present to the thoughts of the future, with simple words in such living, original, yet exquisitely moulded, maxim like phrases that the critics have awarded it an unquestionable rank as one of the world’s masterpieces in rhetorical art.”

Notwithstanding its surpassing merit in so ably epitomizing the cause of the war and the effect that that war would have on future governments throughout the world, and as a literary masterpiece, save the casual notice it received immediately after its delivery, no history of the Gettysburg Address, the circumstances of its preparation and delivery, was written for over thirty years, until John G. Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries, published his account in the Century Magazine, in 1894.

“There is every probability,” Mr. Nicolay says, ” . . . that the assemblage took it for granted that Mr. Lincoln was there as a mere official figurehead, the culminating decoration, so to speak, of the elaborately planned pageant of the day. They were therefore totally unprepared for what they heard, and could not immediately realize that his words, and not those of the carefully selected orator, were to carry the concentrated thought of the occasion like a trumpet-peal to farthest posterity.”

Among the few who instantly recognized the far-reaching effect of the President’s address was Wayne Macveagh, who later distinguished himself as a lawyer, Cabinet member, diplomat and orator. He had gone to Gettysburg as the President’s guest and was seated near him on the platform as he spoke.

“I waited until the distinguished guests who wished to do so had spoken to him, and then I said to him with great earnestness, ‘You have made an immortal address,’ to which he quickly replied: ‘Oh, you must not be extravagant about it. ” It was not until the return trip to Washington that night, that MacVeagh again talked with Lincoln.

“He had sent for me,” he continues, “as I knew, to renew our talk of the day before, but I could not restrain myself from saying to him : ‘You did not like what I said to you this morning about your address, and I have thought it carefully over, and I can only say that the words you spoke will live with the land’s language. He answered: ‘You are more extravagant than ever, and you are the only person who has such a misconception of what I said; but I did not send for you to talk about my address, but about more important matters.”

This conversation with MacVeagh, his talk with Lamon and his letter to Edward Everett, quoted hereafter, are the only known recorded instances where Lincoln made any comment upon his Gettysburg Address after its delivery.

If there was one man qualified to pass judgment on Lincoln’s address, that man was Edward Everett, the recipient of many honors in the realm of oratory for a quarter of a century and who was now to see his own words heralded with superlative praise by an almost unanimous press and people, while those of the President of the United States were to be relegated, for the time being, to obscurity.

The presidential party returned to Washington on the night of November 19th, and on the following day, Mr. Everett wrote a letter to the President in which he paid him a tribute that must have dispelled any thought of failure he may have entertained up to that moment. “I should be glad,” the great orator wrote, “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.”

Following is Mr. Everett’s letter:

My dear Sir: Not wishing to intrude upon your privacy when you must be much engaged, I beg leave to thank you very sincerely for your great thoughtfulness for my daughter’s accommodation on the platform yesterday, and much kindness to me and mine at Gettysburg. Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you with such eloquent simplicity and 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. My son, who parted from me at Baltimore, and my daughter concur in this statement.

On the same day, Lincoln acknowledged this high tribute and again gives proof that he regarded the part which he himself played in the previous day’s drama as unimportant:

Your kind note of today is received. 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 a failure. Of course I knew that Mr. Everett would not fail; and yet, while the whole discourse was eminently satisfactory, and will be of great value, there were passages in it which transcended my expectations. The point made against the theory of the General Government being only an agency whose principals are the states was new to me, and, as I think, is one of the best arguments for national supremacy. The tribute to our noble women for their angel ministering to the suffering soldiers surpasses in its way, as do the subjects of it, whatever has gone before.


Illustration of audience for Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

An attendee’s recollections of President Lincoln’s speech

From Lincoln at Gettysburg: An Address, by Colonel Clark E. Carr (first published in 1906)

It was estimated that there were a hundred thousand people who attended. The crowds began to arrive two days before the exercises were held. I went over from Harrisburg on the day before and rode from there in a box freight car, which was seated with rough boards for the occasion. I think that most of the passengers had similar accommodation, as the passenger coaches could not begin to carry the people who attended. The town, which then had a population of about two thousand, did not begin to be able to take care of the people, many of whom sat up all night. Fortunately for us, Mr. Wills had reserved quarters for the members of our board at the hotel.

THE PROCESSION

It was expected that there would be a great number in a procession to follow the President’s party to the grounds, in which we were disappointed, as most of the people chose to go out by themselves over the battlefield and through the cemetery.

At about ten o’clock in the morning, President Lincoln appeared at the door of Mr. Wills’ house. Horses had been provided for him and his party, and for some other distinguished personages, and for the members of the board of Commissioners. The procession was delayed for some time by people pressing forward to shake hands with the President after he was mounted upon his horse, which continued until stopped by the marshals.

Following those already mentioned came civic and military organizations on foot, and finally the people at large. One of the most interesting features of the procession was a large company of veteran soldiers who had been wounded in the battle.

The procession was under the direction of Hon. Ward H. Lamon, marshal of the day.

THE PRESIDENT AS HE APPEARED ON THE MARCH

President Lincoln, as we moved slowly forward, sat at first erect upon his horse, handling the reins of the bridle in the white gauntlet gloves he wore, in such a stately and dignified manner as to make him appear the Commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States, which he was.

Before he reached the grounds, he was bent forward, his arms swinging, his body limp, and his whole frame swaying from side to side. He had become so absorbed in thought that he took little heed of his surroundings and was riding just as he did over the circuit in Illinois, during the years of his early practice of law, with his saddle bags, which contained all of his possessions, dangling upon each side of his horse.

Seats were reserved on the platform for the President, the Board of Commissioners, and the invited guests.

I have no recollection of when Mr. Everett reached Gettysburg nor of how he got out to the grounds, but I distinctly remember that we waited for him a half-hour before the exercises commenced, during which the bands of music played airs that were solemn and impressive.

THE OPENING EXERCISES

The exercises were opened with an invocation by the Eev. Dr. Stockton, who was, I think, then chaplain of the United States Senate. Letters of regret were read from General George G. Meade, who commanded our troops in the great battle and who was still in command of the army at the front; from the venerable General Winfield Scott, and others; after which Mr. Everett was introduced and began his oration.

MR EVERETT’S ORATION

Volumes have been written upon Mr. Everett’s address, many of them in a vein of unfriendly criticism, especially contrasting his long and studied speech with the short and pungent sentences of Mr. Lincoln.

At the close of Mr. Everett’s address a solemn dirge written by Mr. B. B. French, especially for the occasion, was sung by a hundred voices, after which President Lincoln was introduced to the great multitude.

ME. LINCOLN SPEAKS

When the President thus appeared, it was the first opportunity the people really had to see him. There was the usual craning of necks, the usual exclamations of “Down in front! ” the usual crowding to get places to see, and much confusion. He waited patiently for the audience to become quiet, and there was absolute silence while he spoke.

He began in those high, clarion tones, which the people of Illinois had so often heard, to which he held to the close. His was a voice that, when he made an effort, could reach a great multitude, and he always tried to make everyone hear. He held in his left hand two or three pages of manuscript, toward which he glanced but once. He spoke with deliberation, but cannot have continued more than three or four, some said two, minutes.

A moment’s reflection will convince anyone that before the great multitude of people, nearly all of whom were standing, could have prepared themselves to listen intelligently — before they had, I may say, become poised, before their thoughts had become sufficiently centred upon the speaker to take up his line of thought and follow him — he had finished and returned to his seat.

PEOPLE DISAPPOINTED IN LINCOLN’S ADDRESS

So short a time was Mr. Lincoln before them that the people could scarcely believe their eyes when he disappeared from their view. They were almost dazed. They could not possibly, in so short a time, mentally grasp the ideas that were conveyed, nor even their substance. Time and again expressions of disappointment were made to me. Many persons said to me that they would have supposed that on such a great occasion the President would have made a speech.

Everyone thought, as expressed by Mr. Wills four days later (to which reference has been made), that instead of Mr. Lincoln’s delivering an address, he only made a very few “dedicatory remarks.” We on the platform heard every word. And what did we hear? A dozen commonplace sentences, scarcely one of which contained anything new, anything that when stated was not self-evident.

I am aware, because I noted it at the time, that in the Associated Press report, which appeared in the morning papers, there were the punctuations of “applause,” “long continued applause,” etc., according to the invariable custom in those days. Except when he concluded, I did not observe it, and at the close, the applause was not especially marked. The occasion was too solemn for any kind of boisterous demonstrations.

LAMON’S RECOLLECTION OF HOW THE ADDRESS WAS RECEIVED

In his “Recollections of Abraham Lincoln,” edited by his daughter — a very interesting book — Ward Hill Lamon, Marshal of the District of Columbia (which position, besides the fact of his being a most intimate friend, brought him into constant and close relation with the President), says:

“On the platform from which Mr. Lincoln delivered his address, and only a moment after it was concluded, Mr. Seward turned to Mr. Everett and asked him what he thought of the President’s speech. Mr. Everett replied: ‘It is not what I expected from him. I am disappointed.’ Then in his turn, Mr. Everett asked, ‘What do you think of it, Mr. Seward?’ The response was, ‘He has made a failure, and I am sorry for it. His speech is not equal to him.’ Mr. Seward then turned to me and asked, ‘Mr. Marshal, what do you think of it?’ I answered, ‘I am sorry to say that it does not impress me as one of his great speeches.'”

FALSE REPORTS THAT THE AUDIENCE WERE EXCITED

“In the face of these facts,” continues Mr. Lamon, “it has been repeatedly published that this speech was received by the audience with loud demonstrations of approval; that amid the tears, sobs, and cheers it produced in the excited throng, the orator of the day, Mr. Everett, turned to Mr. Lincoln, grasped his hand, and exclaimed, “I congratulate you on your success!’ adding in a transport of heated enthusiasm, ‘Ah, Mr. President, how gladly would I give my hundred pages to be the author of your twenty lines!’

“As a matter of fact,” Mr. Lamon goes on to say, “the silence during the delivery of the speech, and the lack of hearty demonstrations of approval immediately after its close, were taken by Mr. Lincoln as certain proof that it was not well received. In that opinion we all shared. If any person then present saw, or thought he saw, the marvelous beauties of that wonderful speech, as intelligent men in all lands now see them, his superabundant caution closed his lips and stayed his pen.”

WHY THE AUDIENCE WAS NOT IMPRESSED

In concluding his comments upon Mr. Lincoln’s address, Mr. Nicolay, in his “Century” article to which reference has been made, says, “They [the hearers] were therefore totally unprepared for what they heard, and could not immediately realize that his words, and not those of the carefully selected orator, were to carry the concentrated thought of the occasion like a trumpet pedal to the farthest posterity.”

My own recollection, which is more clear as to occurrences in those troublous times, especially those upon that occasion, the responsibilities of which devolved in a great degree upon a board of which I was a member, coincides with that of Mr. Lamon and Mr. Nicolay. It is true, as Mr. Nicolay says, the hearers were totally unprepared for what they heard, and could not immediately realize how able and far-reaching was Mr. Lincoln’s address.

My recollection also confirms that of Mr. Lamon, that no one there present saw the marvelous beauties of that wonderful speech. I did not hear the expressions of Mr. Seward and Mr. Everett in regard to it, as my seat was with the members of our Commission, but from the expressions of opinion I did hear, I have no doubt that they were made.

I heard every word and every articulation of Mr. Lincoln, and had no realization that he did anything more than make ”a few dedicatory remarks.” His expressions were so plain and homely, without any attempt at rhetorical periods, and his statements were so axiomatic, and, I may say, matter-of-fact, and so simple, that I had no idea that as an address it was anything more than ordinary.

MR LINCOLN’S MANNER AND BEARING

I was very much struck, many times as I had heard him, by the appearance of Mr. Lincoln when he arose and stood before the audience. It seemed to me that I had never seen any other human being who was so stately, and, I may say, majestic, and yet benignant. His features had a sad, mournful, almost haggard, and still hopeful expression. Everyone was impressed with his sincerity and earnestness.

ANALYSIS OF LINCOLN’S ADDRESS

Short as is Mr. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, it contains all the elements of an elaborate and finished oration — exordium, argument, climax, and peroration. While each of these divisions is far more extended in Mr. Everett’s oration, they are not more marked than in Mr. Lincoln’s.

In his exordium, consisting of five simple sentences, each one of which recalls a fact apparent to every hearer, he lays foundations for the superstructure upon which he builds, broad and deep.

“Four score 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 battlefield of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as the 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.”

After thus laying the foundation, he states the argument: “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 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 that they have thus far so nobly carried on.”

And, to make the argument stronger, to clinch it, as we would say, he repeats, “It is rather for us to be dedicated here to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

And then follows the climax: “That we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain.”

And then the peroration: “That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom; and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I want to say in passing that there was one sentence that did deeply affect me — the only one in which the President manifested emotion. With the close of that sentence, his lips quivered, and there was a tremor in his voice which I can never forget. I recall it whenever I consider the address.

The sentence was, “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”










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