A Few Brief Remarks

Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg was short: only three minutes long, following a moving, two-hour performance by famed orator Edward Everett. It also was nearly meaningless.

Jongwang Lee, Abraham, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Susan Eley Fine Art.

It was cold but sunny in Gettysburg the day Lincoln delivered his famous address.

The estimated crowd of 20,000 people who gathered for the dedication of the national cemetery would be thankful for the cooler temperatures. They brought welcome relief from a problem that had been plaguing the town for most of the summer and early fall: the stench of decaying bodies—both human and equine—left to rot after the calamitous battle of July 1-3, 1863. For months, workers had hurried to get thousands of bodies reburied properly before the ceremony on Nov. 19, but they were only partially done by then.

There can be no argument that the Gettysburg Address is one of, if not the most important, documents in American history. Its gravity is not so much belied by its brevity as it is enhanced by it. In only 272 words, Abraham Lincoln redefined the meaning of the Civil War, transforming a war to save the Union, with slavery intact if possible, to a “new birth of freedom.”

Delivered in less than three minutes, the speech posed a striking contrast to the oration delivered by famed orator Edward Everett, who preceded Lincoln on the podium. In a letter to the President some time later, Everett applauded Lincoln’s precision. “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,” Everett confessed.

Despite his modesty, Everett’s two-hour long, detailed recreation of the calamitous three-day battle that had taken place four months earlier was the real Gettysburg Address. The President’s “remarks,” as they were called on the program, were not intended to be the event’s main focus. No one expected the President to speak very long as everyone, even Lincoln himself, knew Everett was the star of the show.

Yet few, if any, Americans today can quote a single line from Everett’s “Gettysburg Oration.” No one is uploading videos of celebrities or ordinary people reading his dramatic account of sacrifice and glory on the battlefield; Ken Burns has not created a website as a “national effort to encourage everyone in America” to learn Everett’s moving speech.

His spare prose performs feats of grammar that cleared the atmosphere of the battlefield of the putrefying human remains that lay half-buried nearby.

And it was moving. Despite our modern sensibilities, which would lead us to imagine such a lengthy oration boring if not insincere, 19th-century audiences lapped up such performance art. A former congressman, senator, governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard University, and secretary of State, few public figures were more well known or revered than Edward Everett, whose voice, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “was the most mellow and beautiful and correct of all instruments of the time.” Lincoln’s personal secretaries, John Nickolay and John Hay, who accompanied their boss to the Pennsylvania countryside, reported that Everett held the nearly 20,000 in attendance “spell-bound” as he likened Gettysburg to the Battle of Marathon.

Lincoln’s speech, although strikingly brief, was also well received. The President had to pause five times for applause. Historian Garry Wills, whose Pulitzer-prize winning study of the address gives the most complete account of the event, believes that the President’s voice may have exceeded Everett’s in one crucial aspect: audibility. Although actors and impersonators tend to portray Lincoln with a deep baritone, Wills explains that his higher pitched-voice actually carried better.

A fan of theatre who had dabbled in acting, Lincoln also understood the importance of performance and would subject anyone with the patience to lengthy recitations of his favorite Shakespearean monologues. By all accounts, he was quite good, a master of rhythm and delivery in his own right. And although the myth surrounding the speech tells of some hastily written thoughts jotted down on the back of an envelope, Wills assures us that Lincoln was a careful and deliberate writer who, as he did with all his speeches, churned out numerous drafts of the address in the days leading up to November 19.

But if Lincoln was no shrub when it came to oratory, the immense and longstanding popularity of the Gettysburg Address requires some explaining nonetheless. According to Wills, the text itself reveals the key. His spare prose, dexterous and supple, performed feats of grammar that cleared the atmosphere of the battlefield of the putrefying human remains that lay half-buried nearby just as it cleansed the nation from the sin of slavery. The speech “hovers above the carnage,” lulling listeners into a dreaming state of transcendence where unimaginable suffering completes the revolution begun “four score and seven years ago.”

As many lives would be lost after Gettysburg than had been lost before it.

In November 1863, however, the meaning of speech, like the outcome of the war, was far from assured. Even the result of the battle itself was still up in the air. As historian Carol Reardon points out, the violence and confusion of the three-day long battle made it difficult to comprehend the aftermath until months later. Yes, Lee had retreated back into Virginia, but he had accomplished one of his primary goals: to feed and resupply his hungry army, which would allow him to carry on for another sixteen and a half months.

It would be a long time—many years, in fact—before the calamitous rebel charge on the third day would be thought of the as the Confederacy’s “high watermark” or would come to be known by the name of its leader, Gen. George Pickett. In November 1863, Gettysburg did not yet signify Confederate defeat. As many lives would be lost after Gettysburg than had been lost before it.

Another year would pass before Lincoln faced re-election, and his prospects of seeing a second term would dim before, in the eleventh hour, General William T. Sherman would capture Atlanta and secure the President’s political life. A McClellan presidency would have meant armistice, and most likely, a repeal of emancipation, which remained at that time only an executive order. The “new birth of freedom” would have been stillborn.

Although Lincoln’s prose is magisterial, its might depended in no small part on the ability of the Union Army to achieve battlefield victories in 1864 and 1865. In this case, the pen was only as powerful as the sword.

Lincoln’s “remarks” would only become the Gettysburg Address once the Union had won the war and emancipation codified in the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln intended his speech to infuse the Civil War with new meaning, but only the war could make his speech meaningful.