When a nation in mourning looks to its president for comfort and courage, he must choose his words carefully.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is considered one of history’s great speeches, and it has gained an almost mythical status in the annals of American oratory. But when it was delivered at the dedication of Gettysburg’s national cemetery, four months after the horrific three-day battle there, more people were stunned by its brevity than moved by its simple eloquence. Had the president failed a nation seeking solace in a time of war?

In his new book, The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows, Gabor Boritt tells the story of the disaster that engulfed Gettysburg, the greatest emergency of American history; how a devastated town was reborn; why Lincoln gave his first prepared speech in 2 12 years at the dedication ceremony; and how his words, which few thought great at first, grew into American gospel. Boritt takes a story that we think we know—but do not— and brings it from 1863 to 9/11.

In this article, adapted from The Gettysburg Gospel, the distinguished Lincoln scholar and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College sets the stage for the most daunting task any national leader could face: explaining to a war-weary public why the fight must go on.

The bugle call from Cemetery Hill woke Gettysburg on the morning of November 19, 1863. The misty hills echoed the matin notes, and the town got ready for consecrating the home of its dead. The cavalry climbed the hill to guard the land, and soldiers fanned out around the cemetery to maintain order among the masses of humanity that crowded every road streaming toward the now-sacred place. Cannons boomed their salute. A glorious sun spread its warmth. The great day had come.

Four months earlier, the stunned people of Gettysburg found that the world around them had turned into a blighted land. The area became one giant hospital of the suffering. Nearly every house, barn, school and church—every space that could be occupied by the wounded and the dying—was taken over. Almost 21,000 wounded, perhaps close to 10,000 dead, not to mention the thousands of dead and unburied horses and mules, grew into the central fact of life for the 2,500 people of Gettysburg.

But the disaster brought out the best in most people. They nursed the wounded, helped bury the dead and gave comfort to all—Union and Confederate. And out of the almost unbearable pain of the place, out of the ungodly stench that visitors began to comment on well before they reached the town, a great new dream emerged. A national cemetery would be created, and the battlefields, where so many believed the nation was saved, would be preserved. Many had a hand in bringing forth these ideas, but Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin picked a vigorous young lawyer, David Wills, to head up the undertaking. Wills bought land—on some of it an apple orchard had to be dug up root and branch. He contacted the governors of the states whose soldiers had fought at Gettysburg and obtained their support. November 19 was chosen as the date for the grand consecration ritual, which would be attended by huge masses of people, countless dignitaries—and the president of the United States.

The ceremonies would not start until late in the morning, and people wandered the battlefields in ever-growing numbers. Hands and skulls no longer protruded from the soil, but the rubble of war seemed everywhere. The beauty of the land overwhelmed many, but so did the graves and the places where the graves had been, the flat boards that marked the dead, the countless unknowns, the skeletons of horses, hides and, as a local newspaper cataloged, “ragged and muddy knapsacks, canteens, cups, haversacks, threadbare stockings trodden in the mud, old shoes, pistols, holsters, bayonet sheaths, and here and there fragments of gray and blue jackets.”

The fields had been losing their Union dead, taken one by one to the new cemetery or to home. “Their mute disappearance is eloquent and sacred,” editor John McIlhenny of the Gettysburg Star & Banner mused, “or have they a shape in the mists and woods, a voice on the boundary of silence, in the mystic airs that sweep over the battle field like a secret whispered by the dying into the ears of the living?” The Rebels stayed in their shallow graves condemned “in wretched bedfellowship.” The sun came up higher, then disappeared, and the sky grew overcast and threatening.

President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward also toured the fields that morning. Lincoln came now to Gettysburg to explain to a war-weary people why the bloodletting had to go on—and because the next election was looming. No president had been reelected since Andrew Jackson in 1832, when Lincoln was a young man. But he came to Gettysburg also to nurture his own soul. He had followed the battle with almost desperate intensity and formed very strong opinions about it. Lincoln had to see the grounds. Since the dedication would be on Cemetery Hill with its great vista, the Seminary Ridge area was his destination now. What went on during his carriage ride, no one knows. If the commander in chief thought that he understood the ground well from the July battle reports, reality turned out to be different. Back in the Diamond, the town center (now called Lincoln Square), a newspaperman overheard him say that he had expected to see more woods.

Having seen some of the field of battle, Lincoln returned to his room at David Wills’ house and, if we can trust the recollection of his secretary, John G. Nicolay, wrote out the remarks he would make at the cemetery from a first draft that he had completed the night before. Lincoln liked to take his time crafting his writing. But then producing 200-some words over a 36-hour period would not have been that hasty. Lincoln knew that he could give awful off-the-cuff speeches, but he could also rise to the occasion—and perchance work over his text before publication. His finest poetry so far had come in the emotion-laden moment when he had said goodbye to his Illinois hometown in February 1861 before beginning his presidency:

My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

In one piercing moment he looked at the past, the present and the future. Lincoln began to write down his words on the moving train taking him away from Springfield, but he turned the task over to Nicolay before finishing the last words himself. Most likely he dictated to Nicolay, though they may have used a stenographic copy or the notes of John Hay, the president’s second personal secretary, and then Lincoln worked the text until it satisfied him.

The president would do much the same when he addressed the celebratory crowd that serenaded him after his reelection in November 1864, less than a year after his speech at Gettysburg: “It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its own existence, in great emergencies.”

The election in the midst of such a crisis, said the president, was a necessity.

We can not have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego, or postpone a national election, it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us. The election has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war. Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility. It shows also how sound and how strong we still are.

Three days later Hay noted in his diary Lincoln’s comment about his reply to the serenades: “Not very graceful, but I am growing old enough not to care much for the manner of doing things.” Hay, however, wrote out Lincoln’s off-the-cuff speech from which the president in turn prepared what he would read to the next group of celebrants.

On this November morning in Gettysburg, Lincoln wrote out the first speech he had prepared ahead of delivery since his inaugural address 21⁄2 years earlier. It is possible that he had with him a copy of the two-hour speech of Edward Everett, the ceremony’s main speaker and the foremost orator of his time, and indeed in a few places the two men’s words overlap strikingly. Yet it is unlikely that the president had time to read the long oration. As Nicolay later testified, the “Tycoon,” as the secretaries referred to their boss, used the time available before the procession to the cemetery to work on a second draft of his speech.

This draft most likely served as the reading copy, though we cannot be entirely certain. It has no traces of having been folded, but a secretary could have carried the unfolded speech to the cemetery, for example, or even put two sheets into a breast pocket without etching folds into the paper. Hay ended up with this draft of the speech, and when he was asked, many years later, whether Lincoln held this copy as he spoke, he replied honestly, “Don’t know.”

The theory that the second draft was written after Lincoln returned to Washington runs aground on the absence of two crucial words from that draft: “under God.” Lincoln added these words as he spoke, and if some would wrongly question the sincerity of his religious feelings, few would deny that he was a great politician. No president would have removed those crucial words from the speech after so many of his religious constituents heard it and read it in the newspapers. Such transgression would have been a scandal. Though we do not know when Lincoln made his minor corrections in the second draft, it is quite close to what the Associated Press reported from the dedication ceremony and what much of the North would read—though misprints and the like would abound.

If Lincoln had time on his hands on the morning of November 19, he must have also practiced reading his speech. Liberty Hollinger, then a young girl, remembered many years later how she watched the assembling parade from a house on the Diamond and noticed the president coming to the window twice, looking over the crowd and holding a paper in his hands. Liberty also thought that she saw “inexpressible sadness” on his face, contrasting sharply with the excitement of the masses below.

The people in the square indeed seemed ready. But before Lincoln could move out into the teeming throng from the house of his host, reporters managed to work their way in; perhaps others did, too. According to the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial, the president advised, “The best course for the journals of the country to pursue, if they wished to sustain the Government was to stand by the officers of the army.” Instead of criticizing military blunders, the people should be urged to provide “all the aid in their power.”

Then Lincoln stepped into the square and found himself mobbed by the adoring crowd.The people greeted him with three hearty cheers, reported the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, then three more for the “next President of the United States.” This was not lost on the Democrats in the crowd—or those who would later read reports in the press. Josephine Roedel, a Gettysburg native visiting from Virginia, was astounded: “Such homage I never saw or imagined could be shown to any one person as the people bestow on Lincoln. The very mention of his name brings forth shouts of applause. No doubt he will be the next President, even his enemies acknowledge him to be an honest man.” After a while the parade marshals, dressed in their finery, had “mercy upon his oft-wrung arm” and pushed back the throng, but not before the crowd offered three more enthusiastic cheers for “honest Old Abe.”

The Marine Band stood at the head of the parade, followed by the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and Generals Darius Couch and Julius Stahel with staffs, cavalry and artillery. Next on horseback sat the president and his cabinet members, escorted by the marshals and Generals Abner Doubleday, John Gibbon and Horatio Wright. They were followed by state commissioners, members of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, fraternal lodges, a delegation from Baltimore, another band, students and faculties from Gettysburg College and the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and finally private citizens. Everett rode in a carriage, accompanied by Thomas A. Stockton, the chaplain of the House of Representatives, who would give the invocation; the president of Gettysburg College; and his hostess, Mrs. Jennie Wills.

One reporter noted that flags, “plentiful” but not in “over abundance,” festooned the town. Along the route, another added, “every window and door” displayed Old Glory. The marchers, too, carried flags and banners. In the Diamond and on many of the houses, the flag waved at half-staff. Guns from Cemetery Hill boomed their mourning. Joyful celebration vied with a more subdued religious feeling that at last tried to get a hold. The procession began to move slowly, as in a funeral, with dirges wailing their sad accompaniment. From a far part of the line another dirge might answer “in fine confusion.” It took a long time to reach the cemetery three-quarters of a mile away.

“Like Saul of old he towered a head taller than any man,” marveled one resident of Lincoln on the line of march. He saw a modest but dignified man, head uncovered, cheerful, but “an observant eye” could not miss “the dreadful responsibility” weighing on him. Here he was in his black suit, white gauntlets, carrying a hat with a mourning band on it in memory of his son, Willie, who had died the year before. People bowed to the president along the route, and they also cheered him, breaking the funeral mode: “Hurrah for Old Abe.” “We are coming Father Abraham.” “God save the president.” The line of march stretched on and on. Gettysburg, and perhaps the entire country, had never seen anything like it: a magnificent mass rolling toward immortality.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here