- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007


By Gabor Boritt, Simon & Schuster, $28, 415 pages, illustrated

The Gettysburg Address, perhaps the best-known speech by an American, has a curious history, as scholar Gabor Boritt shows in this definitive study.

For one thing, even today we hear arguments about whether the speech fell flat for listeners on Nov. 19, 1863, or whether they erupted in applause or sat in awed silence. Contemporary accounts of newspaper reporters (and others) vary wildly.

And, of course, there are the stories about Lincoln dashing off the speech while traveling to Gettysburg by train. Mr. Boritt weighs the evidence — especially the original draft — and reaches no firm conclusion, but he thinks it likely that Lincoln wrote the first part of the speech at the White House and then finished it in Gettysburg on the night before he spoke.

But Mr. Boritt’s most surprising finding, at least to this reader, is that decades went by before most people came to recognize its greatness. This, and the likelihood that the address was completed with just hours to spare, calls into question the thesis of Garry Wills’ “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.”

Mr. Wills, whose 1992 book won a Pulitzer Prize, asserted that Lincoln, through his speech, had “stealthily” shifted the meaning of the Constitution in the direction of the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Boritt, in his preface, contrasts Mr. Wills’ work with that of Mary Shipman Andrews’ “The Perfect Tribute,” a 1906 fictional tale that did much to cement the idea that the speech was written on the train to Gettysburg.

“It is not surprising that the fiction writer, the artist, Andrews, for whom a moment of inspiration is all-important, sees Lincoln creating his speech in a flash of insight; and the scholarly writer, Wills, sees Lincoln laboring long and with care,” Mr. Boritt writes, perceptively. “It takes a heroic effort for the students of Lincoln to separate themselves from their subjects. Most of us fail to a smaller or larger degree.”

It was not until late in the 19th century that the image of Lincoln at Gettysburg begins to supplant the image of Lincoln the Great Emancipator, Mr. Boritt says.

“Among the reasons for the emergence of Lincoln as a national symbol and the rise to prominence of the Gettysburg Address were the abandonment of Reconstruction and the need to find a substitute for the Emancipation Proclamation; the growth of a more modern language; the need to Americanize immigrants; and, above all, the democratizing of Progressive politics. But the country’s entrance upon the world scene at the end of the nineteenth century also played a central role. Success on the world stage required unity, especially when the war came, as it did in 1898 and again in 1917.”

The author conducts an exegesis of the speech, but does not restrict himself to that subject. The book, in fact, doubles as a portrait of post-battle Gettysburg. The town has been Mr. Boritt’s home for 25 years (he is the Robert Fluhrer professor of Civil War Studies and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College), and his love for the place shines through.

We see the town in the aftermath of battle. The armies had left behind thousands of dead and wounded men, as well as thousands of dead mules and horses. “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,” an Army medical officer wrote.

Mr. Boritt calls it “the greatest man-made disaster in American history,” and describes how the burden of caring for the wounded and the dead fell on the people of Gettysburg and the volunteers who streamed into town. “Washington was oblivious,” he says.

When, a few months later, it was decided to establish the Soldier’s National Cemetery at Gettysburg, the grim work of digging up the dead began, a task that fell to a crew of eight to 10 black men, who were paid $1.59 per body.

“A white drayman and photographer, Samuel Weaver, superintended the exhumations. He kept records of every name found, recorded every item recovered. No grave could be opened unless he was present. …

“When you open a grave, you first look to see if the uniform is blue or gray. But often you can’t tell what you have found. So you search the dead for identifying documents and valuables. Poking into the decomposing bodies is an awful job. Weaver does it with an iron hook.”

The night before the dedication, perhaps 15,000 visitors crowded the town of 2,500, many of whom were packed into rooms — and beds — with strangers. They were the lucky ones. Some people slept in chairs or on the floor. Others just wandered the streets of the town all night.

“The crowds wandered from tavern to tavern in torch- and gaslit streets, drinking whiskey and ale, singing songs, playing music, and listening to speeches.”

Today, Gettysburg is one of the busiest tourist towns in the country. It is almost always crowded in the summer, especially around the anniversary of the battle, July 1-3. But the town also fills up each year on Nov. 19, to hear speeches by historians and dignitaries. Of course, none of them can match the few “remarks” made by President Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 19, 1863:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Greg Pierce is editor of the Civil War page.

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