Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has become especially relevant this week as Americans undertake a sixth year in the Iraq War, a struggle that has now exceeded the Civil War in length. It might be time to take stock of what Lincoln meant in the middle of one of our longest and bloodiest wars. We might ask how the Northern (and Southern) public managed to sustain the war for as long as they did. Certainly, there were significant interests at stake in the Civil War and ideals as well. But after even four years of numbing casualties, resolve in both sections became tenuous. We might recall that the purpose of the war was not always entirely clear to its participants and the higher ideals we have inscribed on the Civil War were not entirely self-evident to those fighting it. Numerous commentators and politicians have invoked Lincoln several times since September 11, 2001, and they have often depicted the Iraq War as a struggle for freedom. The concept of freedom, however, has had more modern meanings, often associated with the Cold War struggle against totalitarianism. In Lincoln’s day the concept of “liberty” resonated more deeply among white Americans, since its meaning was tied directly to the Revolution. Liberty invoked rights, either those of the individual or the states, rights that were to be guarded vigilantly and defended vigorously against the inevitable encroachments of tyranny. Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke most directly about equality, and in his opening line quoted “all men are created equal” from the nation’s Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s invocation of a “new birth of freedom” came at the end of his address, and specifically in the context of the stunning threat to free government that secession and war had caused. Freedom also stood in opposition to enslavement, and in this context to be free meant simply to not be enslaved. Free men were masters of themselves. The political cry of “free soil, free labor, free men” caught on with white Northerners because slavery was perceived as restricting their [free whites] movement and economic prospects. Still, “freedom” had little of the purchase that “liberty” did in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead, it was Lincoln’s emphasis on equality that was revolutionary and in the year of his Emancipation Proclamation so very important. It was the concept of equality in the Gettysburg Address that set Democrat’s teeth on edge and prompted southern scorn. So, what did Lincoln say and do in the Gettysburg Address and why should we remember it? Was it the beginning of a modern experience of national mourning and dedication, aimed at finding meaning in war?

These questions lie at the center of several recent books. Gabor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows is only one example of a growing (and seemingly endless) interest in Lincoln and his Civil War leadership. In addition, Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: The Civil War and Death has recently called considerable attention to the question of the Civil War in our national identity and culture.

We remember Lincoln’s words commemorating the dead at Gettysburg, but we might ask whether Americans at the time found them worthy of comment. Surprisingly, few Americans, it seems, heard these words or even read them. If you scan the newspapers in the weeks after the address, you will find it gets barely a mention and almost nowhere was it reprinted in full. On November 19, 1863, the occasion was a poignant and most modern of national events–a commemoration, a remembering of the dead in wartime and the creation of a national cemetery. Lincoln tried to speak beyond the immediate circumstances, however, and risked losing his own audience but gaining one for the generations. In the first instance the Address was received by many in the North as an opportunity to consider the great battle and its place in the national struggle. At Gettysburg over 23,000 Union soldiers, or 25 % of the Army of the Potomac were killed or wounded or missing. For Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia the toll was even higher: 33 % of his army, over 28,000 men. On the 3rd day in Picket’s division all 3 brigadier generals and all 13 regimental colonels were killed or wounded.

The reaction to the battle in the North in early July was ecstatic. Josiah Strong, Presbyterian minister, wrote in his diary that “the charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken” “the copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment” “the government is strengthened 4 strong at home and abroad.”

But many white southerners took a far different view of the battle at Gettysburg. It took weeks for many to understand much of what had happened, the information trickled in with the wounded and from northern newspapers. Southern papers told of a large battle with heavy casualties but presented Gettysburg as a stalemate rather than a loss, and one in which southern soldiers gave every bit as good as they got.

Soldiers wrote home, of course, but many were uniformed about the larger consequences. One, Jed Hotchkiss, Stonewall Jackson’s mapmaker, took a view shared by many in the Confederate ranks. The northern papers were full of nonsense, he wrote his wife Sara on July 14th, “we did not take the heights at Gettysburg” but, he noted, Lee and the army waited 3 more days to “offer” battle and when the Yankees did not come into the open for a fight, Lee and the Army came away from Gettysburg “at our own pleasure.”

For the white South Gettysburg was less troubling than the simultaneous loss of Vicksburg. There, indeed, a place, a Southern army, did fall, was lost, and the consequences for the Confederacy were plain–it had been cut in two.

But even with this loss on top of Gettysburg Jed Hotchkiss could find a way to dismiss it. “She is not the Confederacy,” he observed of Vicksburg. The North would find out, he thought, that it had only an “imagined possession” of the Mississippi. Vicksburg was “no vital blow.”When Hotchkiss looked north after Gettysburg he saw a people afflicted with political divisions. Many in the white South hoped, as Lee did, that the battle would widen those divisions and so weaken northern resolve to win the war. White Southerners saw their solidarity, so clearly displayed on the field at Gettysburg, in sharp relief to the Northern political divisions.

After the November 19th events at Gettysburg, these issues framed how Lincoln’s address was received. Republicans in the Northern press focused on the importance of the battle itself, the only battlefield in the North–distinguishing between it and the raids into other parts of the border North. Gettysburg as a place for the battle, then, was significant because it was “the first trial of the capacity of the rebels to fulfill the boasts, so often made by their leaders at the outset of the war, that they would march through the free States in triumph. . . The ambition of their chieftains, the plunderous lust of their predatory followers, the domineering pride of a vainglorious people, all went into that battle with high hopes and banners flying, and came out of it crushed, despirited and despairing.” (North American and United States Gazette, (Philadelphia, PA) Saturday, November 21, 1863; Issue 26,639; col A)

In nearby Franklin County, the Republicans there had been architects of Lincoln’s victory in 1860 and they saw in the events at Gettysburg a higher national purpose. They focused not on Lincoln but on the sanctity of the commemoration of the dead: there was “no eulogy too eloquent, no granite too enduring to extol and perpetuate their virtues.” The key to the memory of the event was its character: “Inseparably with this event, which has become history–must be recorded this fact, that the proceedings of the day were conducted with profound solemnity, and that in no instance was the bounds of decency and propriety disregarded. No accident of any character occurred, and the demeanor of all, without scarcely a single exception, was in conformity with the rules of law, respect and good order.” (Franklin Repository, November 25, 1863) In the same issue the Republican editors noted that Delaware voted to end slavery. Republicans, as a rule, paid much more attention to Edward Everrett’s long address than to Lincoln’s short talk.

Northern Democrats, however, found little to praise in either man’s words. The Buffalo Courier, called the consecration of the cemetery at Gettysburg a “national wake” and denounced it as “a relic of barbarism.” (New Haven Daily Palladium, (New Haven, CT) Friday, November 27, 1863; Issue 308; col A) The New Hampshire Statesman ridiculed, “so far as it was a pageant, it did not reach the public expectation.” It called Edward Everett’s speech manufactured if mildly eloquent. Of Lincoln the paper wrote nothing. (Concord, NH Friday, November 27, 1863; Issue 2217; col B)

In the Southern press the events provoked a curious response. Most papers did not publish a single notice about them. Those that did focused not on Lincoln’s now famous words but on his impromptu speech the night before.

Here is the Richmond Examiner’s headline:

“The Dedication” of the Gettysburg Battle-Field—Details of the Ceremonies—The Cemetery—Speech and Wit of Lincoln Dropped on the Wayside

The Examiner used the occasion to ridicule Lincoln–on his arrival by train the evening before Lincoln gives a humorous short speech but according to the Examiner “the scene here, one would think, was one to inspire solemnity and reverence, but it seems to have given the Yankees quite another feeling–Lincoln seems to have regarded it as a very fit occasion for merriment and wit!”

The editors in Richmond zeroed in on the image of Lincoln as disconnected from the suffering and oblivious to the carnage and loss he and his administration had created. They noted that Lincoln tried to joke about whether the local Pennsylvanians had seen the rebels last summer and fought them, but “the people looked at each other with a half amused, half puzzled expression, while the long, tall form of the President leaned from the car as he waited the reply.” (Daily Richmond Examiner, (Richmond, VA) Wednesday, November 25, 1863; Issue 217; col C )

The Richmond Daily Dispatch (November 24, 1863 ) called the ceremony the “National Necropolis.” The celebration was “entirely Yankeeish. The Star Spangled Banner was all over the ground, but was adorned with some strings of black in view of the occasion.” As for Everett’s speech they could not believe his assertion that if the secession vote had been put to the people of the South they would never have voted for it: “With the stiff corpses of one thousand two hundred and eighty eight men lying in a semi-circle around him, killed on the field for the express purpose of giving the lie to all such statements, this Massachusetts Yankee stood on the platform at Gettysburg and read aloud this printed folly.” (Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 25, 1863)

If we look at eyewitness accounts, most observers focused on the great speech of Edward Everett and on the solemnity of the occasion. On November, Wednesday, 18, 1863, Amos Stouffer from nearby Franklin County went to Gettysburg, for the “Dedication and consecration of the National Cemetery will be tomorrow.” The next day he recorded in his diary his eyewitness account of the Address: “A very fine fall day. The day opened with the booming of cannon. Abe Lincoln, Gov. Curtin, Gov. Seymour, Gov. Todd, Gov. Brough, Maj. Gen Schnock, Maj. Gen Couch, Gen. Stoneman & several other Maj. Gens. were there and about a doz. Brigadier Gens. Shook hands with Old Abe & Curtin. Everet delivered the oration. The dead of the different states are all kept separate. It was a grand affair. About 30,000 people here. We came home in the evening. Emma & Matty Snivel went over with Adam.” The next day he wrote: “A fine day . . . . the affair at Gettysburg was certainly imposing. The military display was good. The Lodges from different parts of the state marched.”

Two hundred miles to the South, Joseph Waddell, editor of a Virginia newspaper, did not attend the ceremony of course, but instead wrote in his diary about the war on the same day as Lincoln spoke. The contrast is significant:

“A general feeling now that the war will be interminable. All round the horizon there is not a glimmer of light or hope. Yet the war does not weigh as heavily as it did for many months after it began. The recollection of the security and abundance formerly enjoyed seems like a dream. — I picture to myself the scenes in our streets three years ago — piles of boxes before every store door, shelves and counters within filled and piled up with goods, merchants begging customers to buy; groceries running over with sugar, molasses, coffee, tea, cheese fish +c; confectioners making the most tempting display of fruits, cakes and candies; wagon loads of country produce calling at every house and farmers earnestly inquiring who wished to purchase flour, corn, potatoes, beef, pork, apples — Now, the stores (still so called by courtesy) will furnish you thread, buttons, pins, and other light articles which ‘run the blockage,’ cotton cloth of Southern manufacture (at $3.75 per yard!), vessels made of clay instead of glass or china ware, and occasionally a few yards of calico or linsey; the confectioner’s saloons are like ‘banquet halls deserted’ ; and you will be lucky if, by dint of entreaty and as a special favour , an ‘independent farmer’ will sell you at a high price a barrel of flour or a few bushels of corn.”

Like many white Southerners, Waddell had nothing to say about Lincoln’s address in later diary entries. Only a handful of Southern newspapers carried notice of it and none printed his remarks in full.

In the fall of 1863, however, the war was taking its toll on Waddell and other white southerners. To them, few of their expectations seemed to have been met. The political ruptures that Lee and his army hoped to see in the North after Gettysburg, at least for a time, faded with the national commemoration. The peace Democrats, Waddell thought, were “dead” in the North. The hope of secession had been pinned for some time on the idea that the North would tire of the war and eventually sustaining the war would become politically untenable for Lincoln and the Republicans. Yet, the Gettysburg Address and the speeches there had the opposite effect.

As we look back at Lincoln’s message and at the context of it in the Civil War, we cannot help but see the real political conflict Lincoln was managing, as well as the ways the newspapers tried to influence public opinion and everyday citizens. Lincoln’s war was not like ours today, of course, either in its aims or its origins. But Lincoln’s reelection hung in the balance in 1863 and 1864, and the war did too. Lincoln, in fact, was the first president to face reelection in the middle of a major war. His words at Gettysburg, so revered today, were received in the context of the modern nation’s political struggle, especially its battle to define the meaning and purpose of so many deaths. Lincoln meant what he said and the humility with which he delivered the address was genuine. But he seemed to know also that modern nations fought and sustained wars differently from the empires and feudal states of the past. There could be no calls to religious heritage, or ethnic identities, or past grievances at the hands of infidel invaders. Instead, there were the stage at the cemetery, the dead in the ground, and the sweeping battlefield within easy sight. This tableau offered a setting for national identity and national purpose, and Lincoln seized the opportunity to inscribe his words there.

The idea of commemorating, in fact, has had and continues to have a powerful appeal to a citizenry at war, even, perhaps especially, in a democratic republic. Lincoln’s address helped sustain the idea that the staggering deaths of the Civil War must have a purpose. Lincoln names that purpose in ways that white Southerners found ludicrous and Northern Democrats scoffed at. Still, the modern American nation has practiced this form of what we might call “remembering-as-meaning” ever since. The difficulty for the citizens of a modern democratic republic at war, ever since Lincoln’s brilliant Gettysburg Address, lies in discerning whether the act of commemoration is making meaning or giving voice to shared purpose. We Americans will probably always search for meaning when we are at war, and we will disagree. But also, like the citizens who gathered at the battlefield and those who later read about the events at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, we will need to ask ourselves whether remembering the dead in war has obscured our vision about the nature of the struggle.

About William Thomas

William G. Thomas III is a professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities. He teaches digital humanities and digital history, 19th century U.S. history, the Civil War, and the history of slavery.
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