Gettysburg's Good News
Schoolkids learn Lincoln's words at the scene of the epic battle by heart. But what did they really mean?
The meaning of the Gettysburg Address has changed, generation after generation. It has become one of the most revered texts, even as historians and public figures have puzzled over its meaning. In a new book, The Gettysburg Gospel, Gabor Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, takes a fresh look at the 272 words written by President Abraham Lincoln, probably in a 36-hour period, partly in Washington, partly at the scene of the battle, the greatest man-made disaster in American history. The word "gospel" suggests spiritual rebirth. When Lincoln's words are best understood, they bring that potential to Americans, indeed to people everywhere.
GETTYSBURG, JULY 4, 1863. Dreadful silence. It rains. People crawl out of their cellars, blinking in the gloomy light, trying to find their neighbors, food, news-life. The battle is over, but the smell of putrid animal flesh mingles with the odor of human decay. It extends into the spirit of the people. War had come to them. Now it had gone and left the horror behind. No toasts are offered today, no fireworks, no parades, no services in the churches filled with grievously wounded men.
But Sally Myers, 23, full of life, forges ahead. The sun comes out, and the schoolteacher writes in her diary: "I never spent a happier Fourth. It seemed so bright." The Union had retaken the town. A soldier will later add: "The Glorious Fourth and we are still a Nation, and shall most likely continue to be for centuries to come." Prof. Michael Jacobs of Gettysburg's college comes out of his house on Middle Street with his son Henry. So do others. A band marches down Baltimore Street, fife and drum breaking the noxious grip of stillness. People move toward the square. Life begins again.
It is Independence Day, after all, the day of victory in 1776, four score and seven years ago. The armies are leaving. But the wounded and dead remain, on the fields, in houses, in barns, and in hospital tents. Twenty-one thousand wounded; perhaps 10,000 dead.
Dead everywhere. Day follows day. Disinfectant powder spread over the muddy streets turns them white for a little while and adds to the odors. Snow in July. Must try "to extinguish, as far as possible, the sense of smelling," one woman writes. Must try to control disease. Pour kerosene on the bodies of horses and mules. Three to five thousand of them. Light the fire over them. Let them go up in smoke. The smell of burning flesh dissipates after a while; the smell of rotting carcasses stays around for months.
Many days are stiflingly hot. Even the nights. Most people don't open their windows to keep the stench out. Hard to keep the stench from their spirits. Sarah Broadhead, wife, mother, and now nurse to the wounded of the battle, writes in a diary about her fears that "we shall be visited with pestilence." Yet among the town's population there is no increase of disease and death. A resilient folk.