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.
"God pity us!" When people approach the town, "the odors of the battle-field" attack them long before they get there. But the visitors come, many to help, some to gawk, some to plunder, most looking for their lost loved ones. Visitors are "compelled to roost in the barns, or upon the steps of dwellings." A man feels lucky when he gets a chair to sit through the night in front of a hotel; better than wandering till daybreak. On July 13, the small Broadhead house, in addition to a family of three, has three wounded soldiers, and 20 visitors. The strangers "are filling every bed and covering the floors." But these problems shrink in the face of the suffering of the wounded and the dying.
Pvt. George Frysinger arrives with an emergency militia unit sent to help maintain order. "We had a severe trial for young soldiers," he writes home to his father. His unit had limped into town on "blistered feet" and got placed in a church. The sacred structure reminded him of his home, which now felt "like a distant Jerusalem to the ancient Jews.... Perhaps we will not deface it much," this church, Frysinger writes to his father, adding: "Gettysburg can not be called a town, but a large collection of hospitals."
Eliza Farnham, a volunteer nurse from Philadelphia, writes the same. "The whole town ... is one vast hospital ... avenues of white tents ... But, good God! What those quiet-looking tents contained!... Dead and dying, and wounded ... torn to pieces in every way." Moans, shrieks, weeping, and prayer fill the houses, the barns, the tents, the fields and woods, the whole area. The land itself seems to wail. Hell on Earth.
Red and some green flags sprout everywhere, identifying places housing the wounded. Nothing like this has ever happened in the United States. Looking back in September, a private commission will report "a scene of horror and desolation which humanity, in all the centuries of its history has seldom witnessed." The more measured tones of an Army medical officer's report are blunt: "The period of ten days following the battle of Gettysburg was the occasion of the greatest amount of human suffering known in this nation since its birth...."
So it remains to this day: the country's greatest man-made emergency ever. The two armies, expecting another battle, took most of their medical personnel away. The doctor in charge likens this to engaging in battle "without ammunition." "What! Take away surgeons here where a hundred are wanted?" a civilian exclaims. "But so it is." Of 106 medical officers the Union Army left behind, perhaps 35 could actually operate.
Six days after the Battle of Gettysburg, nurse Ellen Orbison Harris writes home about wounded men drowning in flash floods and thousands who are "still naked and starving. God pity us! God pity us!" This is the place where Abraham Lincoln will have to come and explain why the bloodletting must go on.
"A vision." The president speaks in a firm voice. This is the first speech that he wrote out ahead of delivery in 2 ½ years, the first since his inaugural address. Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Looking back to the Revolutionary War reminds people that the birth of the nation had cost great sacrifices. July 4, 1776, has been much on the minds of Americans for decades, and for most, "created equal" now meant the right to rise in life. But quoting the Declaration of Independence in 1863 also defended the Emancipation Proclamation that had drastically changed the character of the Civil War. It presented a strong message about liberty without speaking of slavery outright and so alienating those who only wished to fight for the Union and not the ending of bondage.
Lincoln believed that if history would remember him at all, it would be for his Emancipation Proclamation. He invited painters to the White House for months at a time; they portrayed him with broken chains or with the Liberty document in his hand. As an ambitious young man, he had announced that "towering genius" could reach great renown in America by either "emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen." When his oldest friend, Joshua Speed, came to visit in the White House, Lincoln recalled his youthful fear that his moment of life would be gone without a trace. Well, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Now he would be remembered for doing something for "his fellow man."
But here was Gettysburg, the bloodiest of American battles, in the bloodiest war of her history. A "great task" remained before the country: carrying the war to victory. "We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain," Lincoln says, and the crowd interrupts with applause as he conjures words that had been hidden inside of so many since their childhood. The applause quiets and Lincoln finishes: "that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Silence-has the president finished?-then long, continued applause. The dedication of the first national cemetery of the country combined the two major cultural activities of the period: politics and religion. Lincoln's words carried no touch of stridency or self-righteousness. Though this was a funeral, he made no overt reference to religion. He gave no indication of being aware of the religious aspect of the occasion, or if he was, he considered it improper to participate. The rowdy night before the ceremonies, when thousands of visitors with few places to sleep rocked the town with an all-night party, provided no edification in this regard. Only after imbibing the atmosphere at the cemetery with its uncovered heads, prayer, and funeral hymns did Lincoln add, in the moment's inspiration, "under God." One can almost hear him coming in his speech to "that the nation shall," pausing for a second, then adding a little awkwardly "under God, have a new birth of freedom." (Later he would revise the word order to make the sentence read better.)
And yet, whatever expectations he may have taken to Gettysburg, however reluctant he was to make a personal profession of Christianity, much of what Lincoln said carried the sounds of the Bible. This was the music of the ancient Hebrew turned into King James's English. This was the language he was raised on. "Four score andseven years ago." Psalm 90: "The days of our years are three score years and ten"; one of the best-known sentences of the Book."Brought forth" is not only the biblical way to announce a birth, including that of Mary's "first born son," but the phrase that describes the Israelites' being "brought forth" from slavery in Egypt.
Birth, sacrificial death, rebirth. A born-again nation. At a less-than-conscious level, Lincoln weaved together the biblical story and the American story. "Fathers." "Conceive." "Perish." "Consecrate." "Hallow." "Devotion." The devout in the cemetery heard Lincoln speak an intimately familiar and beloved language. His words pointing to rebirth went even deeper than the Christian message, reaching the primeval longing for a new birth that humankind has yearned for and celebrated with every spring since time immemorial.
Lincoln's words came from the heart. The blood bath of the war, and the loss of his own second child, Willie, in 1862, had slowly changed his religious outlook. The secular fatalist of old began to turn into a religious fatalist. He jotted down for himself perhaps in 1862: "The will of God prevails." Something of the Calvinism of his parents that he rejected, even ridiculed, in his youth, started to reclaim him. In his Second Inaugural Address he would explain his course: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right. . . ." God helped Lincoln "to see the right" of abolishing slavery and leading the country toward black citizenship.
If God loomed ever larger in Lincoln's thought as the war went on, if his words at Gettysburg spoke deeply to the devout, they spoke also to a more secular people, for in some part he remained one of them. He would not join a church, could not embrace the Christian conception of sin and redemption, kept mostly silent about Jesus, and showed no inclination to build a personal relationship with God. The secularists could understand his Gettysburg speech largely on their own terms. Lincoln spoke from the heart to them, too.
A lesser person might have foundered on such bifurcation. Christians might have rejected him for not being sufficiently committed; the more secular minded for being too religious. Instead, the majorities embraced him as one of their own. His words at Gettysburg show how he did it. "Inauguration" is how the printed "Programme" described the ceremonies. In his own copy, Edward Everett, the main orator of the day, crossed out the word and replaced it with the religious "consecration." As for Lincoln, he stayed in the middle, and so reached out to all. His success depended in no small part on the beauty of his language. But with all the fresh graves around, the beautiful words would not hide the fact that the war had to go on. It had to-until victory was won.
The rationalism of the Enlightenment combined with Protestant conscience. Lincoln's nine sentences had been welcomed by applause, interrupted by applause five times, and followed by applause. His perhaps 2 ½-minute speech grew into something like three minutes. The people loved him. Lincoln had both voiced the beliefs of mainstream America and urged it on toward a "new birth." He reflected the oratory of the ancient Greeks, especially Pericles, whose speeches appeared in the McGuffey readers that educated America's children. His conclusion echoed not only those of Parson Weems's bestselling Life of Washington but words memorized by generations of children from their readers-some of the best-known words of American history, and of Lincoln's youth-the conclusion of Daniel Webster's 1830 reply to South Carolina's Robert Hayne in the Senate, denying that the U.S. government was a "creature" of the states. It was "the people's government," Webster said, "made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people." In the Bible, Lincoln had read many times the book of Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." He was providing a vision "for us, the living."
"The Good News." The telegraph, a new invention, spread the news across the land rapidly. Lincoln quickly understood that he had a tool to bind the nation together. But the opposition press considered it the start of his re-election campaign. No president had been re-elected in a generation, not since Andrew Jackson, and Democrats now intended to keep it that way. Even in Lincoln's own party, very few saw anything special about his Gettysburg remarks. The front page of the New York Times illustrated the press coverage. It reported the various speeches given at Gettysburg including, without comment, Lincoln's. Within an inch of the president's remarks the paper reported at much length on an address of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The headline: "A GREAT SPEECH."
All too often when the president's words reached the public, they did so in hilariously misprinted forms. In Lincoln's home state of Illinois, the citizens could read that the Gettysburg "ceremonies were the most solemn and impressive ever witnessed on this continent" and that Lincoln made a few "remarks," to wit: "Ninety years ago our fathers formed a Government consecrated to freedom." The Chicago Times started with "Four score and ten years ago."
"Now, we are engaged in the greatest civil war," wrote the Detroit Free Press, "testing whether that nation or any nation so consecrated and so dedicated can stand for many years." "Can longer remain," said the Chicago Tribune. "The dead will little heed. Let us long remember what we have," the Sacramento Daily Union went on, reporting "immense applause." "We owe this offering to our dead," seemed to appear everywhere. The New York Times, as many others, reported dedication to "the refinished work." "Refinished," as in a piece of furniture.
None of this was Lincoln's poetry. But the papers printed what they could or would.
And then Lincoln's speech largely disappeared from American memory. During the first two decades after his death, people erected 20 statues to him; 18 showed him holding the Emancipation Proclamation. Not until the 20th century would Lincoln begin to hold the Gettysburg Address in his hand. By then the country had abandoned its attempt to provide civil rights to black people, and the "new birth of freedom" got whitewashed to refer to whites. The meaning of the Address continued to shift from generation to generation, even as the beauty of the speech got carved into every schoolchild's memory. The speech grew into American Gospel, the good news of a free people, and how that happened is quite a story by itself. Not until the civil rights era would the direction of its original meaning come to the fore again.
Copyright 2006 by Gabor Boritt, from the book The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows (Simon & Schuster).
This story appears in the December 4, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.