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Eric Foner on Lincoln and American Slavery: 16th Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities

On Wednesday evening, October 5th, over 400 patrons of the humanities gathered at the Joslyn Museum of Art in Omaha, Nebraska, for the 16th Annual Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities fundraiser. Eric Foner, author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, gave this year’s lecture. The lecture was fantastic. Foner is one of the leading historians of 19th century America, and his book won the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Lincoln prizes. His other works (Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War and Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution) stand as some of the most influential and widely-cited books in American history.

The evening was a smash hit for the humanities. As a fundraiser for the Nebraska Humanities Council, the event exceeded its ambitious dollar goals and broke previous fundraising records. President of the University of Nebraska J. B. Milliken warmly welcomed guests and opened the evening’s program. Governor Dave Heineman introduced the speaker.

Eric Foner opened his lecture with a recent inquiry he received from a film producer asking if it were plausible to include a scene with Lincoln–pause for effect–playing the harmonica. Then there is always Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This set the tone for the evening: humor was allowed, sharp and interesting discussion would be celebrated, and serious questions about our past and the human condition would be undertaken. I had the opportunity to moderate the question and answer period after the lecture.

Several highlights from the lecture stand out to me days later. One was Eric Foner’s insistence on addressing the problem of “American” slavery. He drove home the point that much of the North was deeply complicit in the institution of slavery, that cotton’s wealth permeated, indeed underpinned, the Northern economy, and that New York City, in particular, benefitted so directly from slavery that it could hardly conceive of interfering with the institution. The breadth and reach of slavery is often missed or forgotten. Foner’s point, that slavery cannot be understood as geographically restricted to the South, has broad implications for how the American public today understands the coming of the Civil War.

At a student event earlier in the day, Eric indicated why the war was not caused by tariffs or economic policy (a common perception still) but instead caused by the problem of American slavery. The idea behind the tariff argument suggests that Lincoln was a representative of the bourgeoisie class in a battle with the South’s agrarian class, but this makes little sense. “600,000 Americans, I assure you, did not kill each other over the tariff,” Foner quipped. Both the North and the South were largely agrarian societies and both political parties and regions had bourgeois elements. The idea persists, but Foner directs our gaze to “American” slavery broadly construed, and the causes of the Civil War come into clearer focus.

A second highlight was Foner’s insistence on tracing Lincoln’s views on race and slavery to reliable sources. After Lincoln’s death, Foner points out, a whole host of recollections came forward claiming that Lincoln said this or that–that he was always against slavery, that he was born with a pen in hand to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The historian needs to evaluate each of these with great care. Direct quotes attributed to Lincoln twenty, thirty, or fifty years after the fact are common. Piecing together Lincoln’s earliest views on slavery requires detailed assessment of the source–who reported it, when, and for what audiences. History depends on evidence and on assessing the evidence rigorously and carefully; we cannot just say what we want about the past. So, the art of history, Foner tells us, is to write from the evidence and, at the same time, to interpret it faithfully and reasonably.

A final question of the evening asked Eric Foner to explain what we can learn from Lincoln’s political development, from his capacity to grow. Here, Foner’s study of Lincoln holds up the importance of understanding as clearly as we can how politics, the human experience, and history broadly are intertwined. Lincoln, he said, had principles and convictions–most prominently against the institution of slavery–but he negotiated these in everyday encounters as he met with people, listened to them carefully, and reconsidered his positions. Intellectually curious and attuned to the subtle changes in public opinion, Lincoln’s capacity to grow came, Foner tells us, from his willingness to take seriously the views of his opponents, to adjust to and shape public opinion, and yet to hold fast to principles. Foner shows us in detail how politics operates in a democratic society, how an especially astute political leader changes over time and in relation to events and people around him or her. It is an inspiring and humbling lesson.

The Nebraska Humanities Council lecture turned into a major celebration this year, affirming just how many people value and support the humanities. And showing how much history and the humanities have to teach us today.

How Railroads Took Native American Lands in Kansas

Although the Union Pacific was built across the Nebraska prairie in the late 1860s, there were other routes and plans competing for U.S. government and foreign investment in the 1850s. Across vast sections of the middle United States, Indian nations held title to hundreds of thousands of acres by treaty, and any railroad project through these lands would need to obtain a right of way or title. For years in the 1850’s all sorts of powerful interests campaigned for selection and funding as the first transcontinental railroad. In this complex jockeying for position, Northern investors and the U.S. government arranged to defraud the Indian nations of nearly all of their lands along the principal routes in Kansas.

In Kansas the expansion of the railroads in the 1850s jeopardized every treaty the U. S. government had struck with Indian nations. The roads were expanding so quickly that white settlement in Indian lands could not be held back. “Railroads built and building from the Atlantic and Gulf cities, not only reach the Mississippi river at about twenty different points,” Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny wrote in 1856, “but are extending west across Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa. Roads of that character have also been commenced in Texas, looking to El Paso, and in Iowa, looking for the great bend in the Minnesota river for a present, and for Pembina for a future terminus. The railroad companies of Missouri and Iowa are even now seeking aid from Congress to enable them to extend their roads to New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah, and thence to California, Oregon, and Washington.”

Manypenny found it “impossible to avoid the conclusion” that “in a few years” the railroads lined up from New Orleans to the west shore of Lake Superior on their jumping off points would reach into the interior west. He also saw that “an active population will keep up with the advance of the railroads.” Manypenny thought that if the country were “favored with peace and prosperity” the railroads would cross the plains and link up the nation within “ten years.” Indeed, he considered the “physical changes impending” to be “at our very door.”

Tens of thousands of Euro-Americans took the Overland Trail west in the 1850s, settled on the Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota prairies, and crossed into Native lands. For Native Americans Manypenny’s observations abounded in ironies. Between 1853 and 1856, the U.S. government initiated and signed over fifty-two treaties with Native groups and each of these legal documents duly recorded vast cessions of lands. Indian agents and the Bureau of Indian Affairs inaugurated a series of policies aimed at bringing Native Americans onto reservations and clearing corridors for white settlement and travel. The agency’s reports were couched in the guise of “civilization” and littered with the language of progress. Much of their efforts were aimed at restricting the mobility of all of the Indian tribes, fixing them on a reservation, out of the way for railroad development on the prairies.

The Delaware, the Kickapoo, and the Shoshone struck treaties allowing railroad development across their reservations, but each treaty was filled with fraudulent loopholes. Each treaty asserted in a key provision that the Delaware, Kickapoo, and Shoshone held “the belief that the value of their lands will be enhanced by having a railroad passing through their present reservation.” Ostensibly, in the case of the Delaware, their lands were to be appraised by commissioners appointed by the Secretary of the Interior and then sold for a minimum of $1.25 per acre to the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western Railroad Company. In addition, the railroad company would pay for surveying the land, and only by completing several twenty-five mile stretches of railroad would the company obtain official title to the lands. “By this treaty fifty miles of railroad are secured to the Territory of Kansas, without one dollar being paid from the territorial treasury or by the general government,” the conniving and manipulative agent Thomas B. Sykes boasted.

The connections the railroad would make were self-evident to Sykes: “It will connect at Leavenworth with the Platte country and St. Joseph railroad, and thence on by the way of Chicago to New York; also at Leavenworth with the St. Louis and Pacific railroad, and at St. Louis with all the eastern and southern roads. This is the first and greatest link in the great Pacific railway, west of the state of Missouri. It is another step toward the Pacific shores. It is another link in the iron chain that is to bind the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

Throughout these negotiations, the Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western Railroad Company was represented by Thomas Ewing, Jr., a young aspiring attorney who had moved to Kansas in 1856 to set up his law practice. A well-placed Republican from Ohio, Ewing was also step-brother and brother-in-law of William T. Sherman.  A few years later a set of similar treaties with the Pottowatomie and the Kickapoo in Kansas opened the way for further extension of the railroads. These treaties divested 576,000 acres from the former nation and 150,000 acres from the latter. Both treaties asserted that the “civilization” of the Indians would be advanced by dividing their common lands up into sections for individual Indian settlement, a process called “severalty.” The treaties further stipulated that only when the President was “satisfied” that these individuals were “sufficiently intelligent and prudent to control their affairs and interests” would he allow them to possess full title to the land in “fee simple.” Furthermore, in its key provisions each treaty authorized Ewing’s railroad company, the Fort Leavenworth, Pawnee, and Western, to have the “the privilege of buying the remainder of their lands.” In other words, the railroad was to be “extended through their reserve” and only the railroad company had the right to purchase the leftover sections that were not taken in severalty by individual Indians. The company could make this move “within six months after the tracts herein otherwise disposed of shall have been selected and set apart.” The Kickapoo in Kansas struck a similar arrangement but with the Atchison and Pike’s Peak Railroad Company.

In each treaty there were massive irregularities. The Delaware maintained that the four chiefs who signed their treaty were drunk and bribed by special lifelong salary provisions. Their agent, Thomas B. Sykes, was thought to have provided them with copious amounts of liquor on signing day. But the defrauding of the Delaware had two additional, more significant injustices. The first was that the treaty provided for the appointment of independent appraisers to assign a value to the lands left over after allotment. There were over 223,000 acres appraised and they extended across much of the richest prairie soil in Kansas. The railroad had to pay a minimum of $1.25 an acre but the lands were worth much more than that. When the commissioners came back with a value of $1.28 an acre, just above the minimum and far below what the lands were worth, the Delaware had little recourse for appeal. Second, the railroad company was supposed to pay $286,742.15 for the land in “gold or silver coin” but the company paid in bonds secured by 100,000 acres of the land, and then offered the remaining 123,000 acres for sale at prices from $20 to $50 an acre. Pocketing the difference, the railroad company directors put up no cash in the deal.

Kansas in this period was a cauldron for fraudulent railroad schemes, but not all agents were as corrupt and irresponsible as Sykes. The Neosho’s Agent, Andrew J. Dorn, caught wind of a land deal that a railroad company independently struck with the Osage Indians and he reported the incident to the Commissioner on Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior in 1858. Rumors flew that various railroad companies were consolidating large tracts of land, especially those with valuable timber, and swindling the Indian groups whenever necessary into selling them. All of these deals took place in clear violation of the Intercourse Act restricting trade with Native Americans and limiting the purchase and sale of Indian lands to the U.S. government by treaty. But, as in the case of the Delaware, Pottowatomie, Shoshone, and Kickapoo, the U.S. government’s administered treaties contained within them plenty of opportunity for duplicity and fraud.

Sources: Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1856 (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson Printers, 1857): 22-23, Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, November 22, 1856. Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 1860 (Washington: A. O. P. Nicholson Printers, 1860): 103. Report of Thomas B. Sykes, Delaware Agency, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, September 16, 1860. For copies of the original treaties, see Ayer collection, Volume 3. oE 95 .U69 1825, Newberry Library. Clinton Alfred Wesieger, The Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972): 414. Andrew J. Dorn to Charles E. Mix, January 14, 1858; J. Thompson to Charles E. Mix, February 9, 1858; R. S. Stevens to Hon. J. W. Denver, April 14, 1858, University of Kansas, Territorial Kansas Online. A balanced account of the treaties and the possible advantages of the railroads for Indian groups is H. Craig Miner and William E. Unrau, The End of Indian Kansas: A Study of Cultural Revolution, 1854-1871 (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), chapter 2. Also for a critical account, see Paul Wallace Gates, Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts over Kansas Land Policy, 1854-1890 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1954). And Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 235-287.

Lincoln’s First Inaugural and American History

When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office as President of the United States, he faced an unprecedented crisis. Seven states had already formally seceded from the Union, set up their own government in Montgomery, Alabama, and were actively recruiting more states to join them in forming a rival national government. Lincoln’s inauguration speech has often been admired for its moderation. The new President stated clearly that he would “hold, occupy, and possess” the federal government’s buildings and forts in the seceded states, but also that “there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.” Lincoln tried to speak past the fanatics to “those who love the Union.”

We can admire Lincoln’s calm restraint, yet in retrospect Lincoln would seem to have misjudged the temper of the times and the resolve of the Southern whites. At the core of Lincoln’s first inaugural address was his assertion that “plainly, the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.” Hundreds of thousands of white southerners disagreed, of course, and saw their nation as an independent republic, fully justified in peaceable separation from the Union. Lincoln asserted that “one section of the country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended.” Although he knew well that many Northerners found little wrong with slavery, Lincoln claimed that “physically speaking” the country could not be separated. And in his beautiful and poignant closing, calling on the “mystic chords of memory” and “the better angels of our nature,” Lincoln hoped Americans would set “passion” aside and renew their bonds of affection in the Union.

Lincoln had reason to believe in these feelings for the Union and that they might avert the looming conflict and violence; indeed, he probably had to have this faith on that day. His personal qualities and his political calculation led him to take a position of open invitation to the white South to return their hearts to the Union. He hoped time would cool off the angry response to his election, and with this expectation his inaugural address was genuinely offered as an attempt at reconciliation. Despite the elegance of his rhetoric, Lincoln’s idea that the American continent could not be physically separated into two or more republics was an assertion unsupportable by history or logic. Various empires had controlled large parts of the American continent and national identities in other parts of the world constantly changed the maps and atlases.Lincoln, however, challenged his “dissatisfied countrymen” to think twice about their actions. He vowed to uphold the constitution and his oath to defend the government, and he said that they in choosing secession bore the responsibility for a civil war. Most of all, Lincoln urged that both sides take time and move deliberately. With time, he hoped, these sad divisions might heal.

The difficulty Lincoln faced was in convincing white Southerners that these sentiments mattered. Few were listening. What happened to make such a distance of feeling, such alienation, possible? Lincoln likened the separation to a divorce, but all such analogies fail. Lincoln’s inaugural address, brave and elegiac as it was, was speaking into a hurricane. The white South in spirit and identity left the Union long before March 4, 1861. The divergence is difficult to time and locate in American history. Too often, our histories have followed Lincoln’s logic that separation was impossible, secession was a “sophism,” and the civil war was the product of discontented extremists–a set of arguments most forcefully made in his message to Congress on July 4, 1861. We might reconsider, however, the national purpose of the Confederate South and its origins. Historians, such as Drew Gilpin Faust, Anne S. Rubin, Peter and Nicholas Onuf, and Edward L. Ayers, have helped us see the white South’s national identity as deeper and more complex that Lincoln might have admitted. These historians and others suggest a white South whose Confederate national loyalties proved durable, even advanced and logical, drawing on the same sources of American nationalism in the Revolution and early national history. They knew what they were doing. We need to retain Lincoln’s sense of historical contingency, for he (almost alone) in his inaugural held out the possibility that things might be different, that persuasion and good will might be reciprocated, and that a reservoir of Unionism might save the nation from war and bloodshed. But we also might consider how sectionalism reinforced its own logic by slowly recasting forms of national identity, and in the process how two modern nations of Americans emerged ready to fight one another on modern scale of conflict. Then we might understand how Lincoln’s eloquent first inaugural fell on deaf ears.

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.