On this date in American history, Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Washington, D.C., heading for a small town just across the Maryland border in rural Pennsylvania. At a time when presidents spoke in public far less frequently than today, the wartime commander-in-chief had been asked to make remarks at the dedication of a new U.S. military cemetery just outside the village of Gettysburg.
In a speech comprising only 10 sentences and 272 words, Abraham Lincoln would consecrate not just the Union dead, but their cause as well -- the cause of freedom. Many myths about the Gettysburg Address have been repeated through the years, even by those who should know better: that Lincoln wrote the speech on the back of an envelope; that he wrote it on the train; that he had help writing it; that he composed the words only as he stood to speak; and so forth.
Partly, these legends arose because Lincoln's appearance there seems to have been something of an afterthought. But in "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America," author Garry Wills points out that the haphazard way in which the president was invited to speak that day should in no way be confused with his well-conceived plan for what he hoped to accomplish from the dais.
Nor can a speech's rhetorical power be judged on its length. The featured speaker, famed orator Edward Everett, took two months to write his address -- and two hours to deliver it. Lincoln wrote his remarks in a couple of days and took three minutes to impart them. Also, the timbre of a speaker's voice and his accent are also good ways to misjudge a political talk. Abraham Lincoln's voice was not the stentorian baritone affected by most imitators. It was high-pitched and tinged with a Kentucky twang that could grate on the ears of Northern listeners. It probably couldn't even be heard by those in the back of the crowd.
Yet, it is Lincoln's words, not Everett's, that ring down through the years. But let's go back to that business about Lincoln's last-minute invitation to speak -- because without that invitation, Lincoln isn't even at Gettysburg on Nov. 19, 1863. How did that come about?
Abraham Lincoln's presence at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery was requested in writing by a prominent citizen of that village named David Wills. A successful 32-year-old lawyer and banker in Gettysburg, Wills was also civic-minded: He was the first public school superintendent of Adams County, Pa., and served the village council and as a local judge. Born and raised in that south-central part of the state, he'd graduated from Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College) with honors and had studied for the bar in Lancaster under Thaddeus Stevens.
The war came, literally, to Wills' doorstep on July 1, 1863, when some two dozen frightened townspeople huddled in the cellar of his home, the largest on the town square, as the battle raged outside. For Gettysburg's 2,500 residents, the aftermath of the fighting was also traumatic. Robert E. Lee hastily retreated his broken Army of Northern Virginia back to the South. And though Union Gen. George Meade ignored Lincoln's order that he pursue the Confederates, the U.S. Army didn't tarry long in Gettysburg, either. Meade wired to headquarters, "I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield."
That "debris" included vast amounts of rotting horseflesh, along with thousands of dead Americans. It was this grim situation to which David Wills addressed himself. He sought out the intercession of Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, who deputized Wills as his agent on the scene. What Wills did next was extraordinary. He petitioned the governors of the other Northern states to help, securing gravediggers; he assisted in finding water, food, and medical care for the wounded, secured land for a cemetery, and organized the commemoration ceremony.
"In the office on the first floor [of his home], David Wills performed many of the duties of today's Federal Emergency Management Agency, Centers for Disease Control and an American Red Cross in the battle's aftermath," notes the National Park Service in its description of Wills' role. Add to that list several tasks that would be done today by the heads of the Veterans Affairs department and the Department of Defense, and you get the idea. Also, Wills' Nov. 2, 1863, letter of invitation to the president, preserved by the National Archives, seems also to have inspired Lincoln's thinking.
"These grounds will be consecrated and set apart to this sacred purpose, by appropriate ceremonies, on Thursday, the 19th," Wills wrote the president. "Hon. Edward Everett will deliver the oration. I am authorized by the governors of the different states to invite you to be present, and participate in these ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive.
"It is the desire that, after the oration, you, as chief executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks," Wills added. "It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the great battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the battlefield are not forgotten by those highest in authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for."
The president agreed to go. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton booked the boss on a 6 a.m. train, figuring that left plenty of time -- even during wartime -- to make the 120-mile journey. After looking at the itinerary, Lincoln altered the schedule himself. Good thing, too: If he had adhered to that schedule, which included transfers in Baltimore and Hanover Junction, he probably wouldn't have arrived in Gettysburg in time to give his now-famous speech.
Beds were scarce in Gettysburg that night, as the population of the town had swelled in anticipation of the next day's proceedings. But Lincoln was met at the train station by David Wills himself, who not only fed the president and his party dinner, but put them up for the night.
It was not a restful evening. From his second-floor bedroom in Wills' house, Lincoln looked out on the town square that housed the courthouse and Thaddeus Stevens' old law offices. Drinking and revelry were in the air, and bands serenaded the dignitaries. A crowd called up to Lincoln to speak. Disinclined as he was to make improvised public remarks, Lincoln declined their entreaties, but did so with wry grace.
"I appear before you, fellow citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment [of requesting a speech]," Lincoln told the crowd after emerging briefly from the house. "I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make."
The crowd laughed at this, and Lincoln continued, adding a sentiment that those bolstered by liquor could well understand: "In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say foolish things. It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all." As the crowd laughed again, Lincoln concluded: "Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further."
Showing restraint rare for politicians of any age, especially our own, Lincoln then went back to bed. He was saving himself for the following day.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.