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Gettysburg Address: Facts & Stories You've Never Heard

1800s | November 19, 2019

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America, making his famous speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery during the American Civil War. Painting by Fletcher C Ransom. Source: (Library of Congress)

The brief yet powerful speech that President Abraham Lincoln delivered on November 19, 1863, has become one of the most revered speeches in U.S. history. Most people know how the iconic speech starts, the memorable "Four score and seven years ago," but that may be the extent of their knowledge of the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln's words, presented as an official dedication of the National Cemetery of Gettysburg, are still as relevant today as they were when they were spoken in Pennsylvania 156 years ago today. Let's look at the Gettysburg Address to uncover some facts and stories that you may not have heard before. 

Edward Everett was the main attraction at Gettysburg; Lincoln was a mere afterthought. Source: (businessinsider.com)

Lincoln was not the Headliner

For such a momentous occasion as the dedication of the National Cemetery, the event organizers invited the greatest orator in the country to deliver the keynote speech. No, not Abraham Lincoln. It was actually Edward Everett, a former senator, former president of Harvard University, and a dynamic public speaker. In fact, he was possibly the best-known orator at the time, and the event organizers knew he could draw a crowd.

They were less sure about Abraham Lincoln. Although he was a highly intelligent man, Lincoln---so they thought---didn’t have the way with words that Everett did. On the day of the dedication ceremony, Everett delivered a rousing two-hour speech from memory in which he detailed the Battle of Gettysburg and likened the creation of the United States to the rise of the great Greek republic. Lincoln had to follow that up with a brief, 272-word speech that barely lasted two minutes. The carefully written speech was so powerful and memorable, however, that Everett later wrote that Lincoln accomplished in two minutes what it took him two hours to do.   

Lincoln wanted his speech to be a rally cry for unity. Source: (homeofheroes.com)

Lincoln was Making a Political Statement

Preserving the Union was foremost on President Lincoln's mind during the American Civil War. When he was asked to deliver a speech at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, he saw an opportunity to sway the American public to accept the idea of a reunified United States, with the South rejoining the union.

Legend has it that Lincoln hastily scribbled his speech on the train en route to Gettysburg, but the reality is that Lincoln took his time, going through several revisions until he was satisfied. He used the Gettysburg Address to propose that the Civil War was a test to determine if the young nation could survive, ending with the conviction that the "government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth." Not surprisingly, his remarks were met with mixed reviews. Republicans praised the speech while Democrats called it "inadequate."

Lincoln used the telegraph to his advantage. Source: (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)

Lincoln Knew how to Work the Media

One of the key reasons why Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was so short, especially when compared to Everett's two-hour speech, was that Lincoln understood the value of a pithy message. He knew that among the thousands of people in attendance at the dedication ceremony would be a number of reporters, and at the conclusion of the speeches, those reporters would flock to the town's telegraph office to wire their news stories to their respective employers. As a result, he intentionally crafted a speech that would be easy for journalists to remember and send to their editors. In fact, many of the nation's newspapers printed Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in its entirety. Everett's speech, meanwhile, was only excerpted.

A blurry, original photograph from the Gettysburg National Cemetery dedication. Source: (pinterest.com)

Gettysburg Saw an Influx of Visitors

In 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was a fairly small town of roughly 2,500 people, but more than 15,000 people came to Gettysburg for the dedication of the National Cemetery. That put a strain on the town. When Lincoln and his entourage arrived in town the night before the dedication ceremony, they found a place to stay in the home of local attorney David Wills and his extremely pregnant wife. In fact, the Wills family had so many people staying with them that night (a whopping 38 in total) that most of them, including the governor of Pennsylvania, had to sleep two or three to a bed, sometimes with strangers. Only two people had the privilege of sleeping in their own bed: Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln. 

Crowds gathered the night before the ceremony. Source: (hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu)

The Crowds Wanted a Sneak Peek of Lincoln's Speech

Word traveled fast around Gettysburg that Edward Everett and Abraham Lincoln were both staying at the Wills house the night before the dedication. That evening, a crowd of several hundred people gathered outside, pleading with both Everett and Lincoln to give them a snippet of their upcoming speeches. Lincoln stepped outside to greet the crowd, joking with them and teasing that they would have to wait until the next day to hear his speech.

John Hay, Lincoln's personal assistant, got drunk with a bunch of college students the night before the dedication ceremony. Source: (youtube.com)

Lincoln's Assistant got Drunk the Night Before the Dedication

In stark contrast to the solemnity of the next day's dedication, the thousands of folks who stayed in Gettysburg the night before created a festive atmosphere, and parties broke out all over town. John Hay, Lincoln's personal assistant who later became Secretary of State, himself got rip-roaring drunk with a group of students from Gettysburg College. According to stories, Hay's mood the next day matched the somber mood of the dedication, just for a different reason.

Workers were still burying the dead as the dedication ceremony was taking place. Source: (findagrave.com)

Dead Soldiers were Still Being Buried During the Ceremony

The Battle of Gettysburg took place from July 1 to 3, 1863, more than four months before the dedication ceremony and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. There was a tremendous loss of life during the battle: approximately 23,000 Union soldiers and 28,000 Confederate soldiers. The death toll was so high, in fact, that months later, workers were still toiling to bury the dead from the battlefield even as the dedication ceremony began.

Had the South not been stopped at Gettysburg, the outcome of the war may have been very different. Source: (britannica.com)

The Battle of Gettysburg was a Turning Point

The defeat of the Confederate Army at Gettysburg marked the end of General Robert E. Lee's plan to invade the North. His plan was to push his way into Pennsylvania, where his troops could restock needed supplies, then take over some of the prosperous cities of the North, including Harrisburg, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Those plans, however, fell apart after the overwhelming defeat at Gettysburg. On average, more than 100 rounds of ammunition were fired for every person killed in the battle, and you can still see blood on the floorboards of a nearby farmhouse that was used as a makeshift hospital during the battle.

Lincoln may have been gravely ill when he delivered his speech. Source: (nps.gov)

Lincoln Battled Through Smallpox to Deliver his Speech

According to some documents, Lincoln began to feel unwell on the train to Gettysburg, mentioning to Hay that he felt dizzy and had a headache. It appears that the President was in the early stages of a mild smallpox infection, most likely a nonlethal form that popped up in people who had been vaccinated against the disease. Although you'd never know it from his stirring performance, he felt weak and unsteady, and following his address, he came down with a fever that spiked high, suffered headaches and backaches, and broke out in blisters. When he got back to Washington, he took to his bed for three weeks, but he managed to survive. You know, until he got a hankering for some theater.

The only time Lincoln saw John Wilkes Booth perform was just before the Gettysburg National Cemetery dedication. Source: (history.com)

Lincoln's First Encounter with John Wilkes Booth

In fact, Lincoln's first encounter with actor John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate him, happened just a few days before Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to deliver his address. In early November 1863, President Lincoln and his wife attended a performance of The Marble Heart at Ford's Theatre, where Booth was performing. An ardent supporter of the South, Booth undoubtedly knew that Lincoln, whom he viewed as an enemy, was in the audience. In fact, Booth appeared to stare down the President from the stage and even seemed to be delivering his menacing lines directly to Lincoln. When another audience member pointed it out, Lincoln replied: "He does talk very sharp at me, doesn't he?" A year and a half later, at that same theater, Booth shot Lincoln.

Tags: abraham lincoln | gettysburg | john wilkes booth | smallpox

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.