The Gettysburg Address | Study Guide

Abraham Lincoln

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The Gettysburg Address | 10 Things You Didn't Know


On November 19, 1863, nearly five months after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In his speech Lincoln referred to the Declaration of Independence, redefining the Civil War as a struggle for human equality and for the unity of the country.

Words, ideas, and phrases from the Gettysburg Address have found their way into the constitutions of France and Japan. President John F. Kennedy and civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. referred to it in their own speeches, and it is engraved on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. At a mere 10 sentences, the Gettysburg Address took only a few minutes to deliver, but it has remained one of the most important and influential speeches in American history.

1. Lincoln was not the keynote speaker at Gettysburg.

The keynote speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg was Senator Edward Everett, a former president of Harvard University and considered by many to be the country's greatest orator. Later the organizer, David Wills, asked President Lincoln to say a few words. Everett had previously been critical of Lincoln's speeches, stating that they "thus far have been of the most ordinary kind, destitute of everything, not merely of felicity and grace, but of common pertinence." At the ceremony Everett spoke for over two hours, and then Lincoln gave his address, taking just minutes. Afterward Everett wrote to Lincoln, "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."

2. There is only one surviving photograph of Lincoln from that day at Gettysburg.

Eighteen-year-old photographer David Bachrach was hired by Harper's Bazaar magazine to travel to Gettysburg to photograph Lincoln as he gave his speech at the cemetery. The trip from Baltimore took him a day and a half. He took only one photo, believing that there was not much to the speech, but that picture turned out to be the only one of the president that still survives. In the photo Lincoln is barely visible in the crowd. Bachrach's wife's niece was the famous writer Gertrude Stein, and in fact, Bachrach and Stein both lived in the same house in 1892.

3. A newspaper retracted a criticism of the Gettysburg Address—a century later.

After Lincoln gave his address, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, newspaper printed an editorial, stating:

We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of.

The paper, later known as the Patriot-News, retracted this review 100 years later, noting that the writer had probably been "under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink" and apologizing for its "flawed" judgment and "hubris."

4. One man was in charge of removing all the bodies from the Gettysburg battlefield and bringing them to the new National Cemetery.

Samuel Weaver, a local merchant, was tasked with the job of exhuming the Union dead from their makeshift battlefield graves and moving them to the new National Cemetery. He often used a hook to examine the dead men's pockets to find identification. Weaver was paid $1.59 per body for his service. Only the Union soldiers were supposed to be reburied in the new cemetery, but according to the National Park Service as many as nine Confederate soldiers were mistakenly buried there.

5. Lincoln went to Gettysburg despite the recent death of one son, the illness of his other son, and his wife's hysteria.

When Lincoln left for Gettysburg, his youngest son Tad lay ill with what Lincoln thought was typhoid fever, a bacterial disease often contracted through infected food or water. His son Willie had died of the illness a year before, and when Mary Todd Lincoln learned her husband was leaving while her son was so sick, she became hysterical. She begged him not to go, but Lincoln was determined. The day following the address, Lincoln learned that Tad was recovering.

6. People partied and got drunk the night before the Gettysburg Address—including members of Lincoln's staff.

Huge crowds came to Gettysburg for the dedication of the cemetery, and the night before the ceremony there was revelry in the torchlit streets. John Hay, one of Lincoln's private secretaries, described how he, a reporter named Forney, and another secretary named Nicolay ate oysters and drank vast quantities of whiskey. Groups serenaded President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward outside their hotel windows, and, as Hay wrote, "Nicolay sang his little song of the 'Three Thieves,' and we then sang 'John Brown.'"

7. It is possible that Lincoln was suffering from smallpox when he gave the Gettysburg Address.

When Lincoln rode the train to Gettysburg, he complained to his staff of feeling unwell. By the time he gave his address, onlookers noted that his color was "ghastly." He developed a fever on the train ride back to Washington, and in the next few days he suffered from headaches and a rash. Lincoln's personal doctor diagnosed him with first a cold and then malaria, but another doctor was called in and pronounced the illness a mild case of smallpox, a viral infection.

The illness may have been more serious than the doctor claimed, but the country was, at this point, in the throes of war and dependent on the president's survival. Reportedly Lincoln made a weak joke about the diagnosis, stating, "For once in my life as President, I find myself in a position to give everybody something!" It is sadly possible, though, that he gave smallpox to his valet, William H. Johnson, who died of the disease.

8. One civilian, a woman, was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg.

More than 7,500 soldiers died at Gettysburg, but only one civilian was killed. Mary Virginia Wade, a seamstress, took refuge at her sister's home when the battle began on July 1, 1863. As the armies moved, Wade and her family found themselves in the line of fire. Bullets broke the windows of the house, and an artillery shell fell through the roof, though it didn't explode. As the battle continued, Wade brought food and water to the Union troops. Wade was making biscuits in the house when a bullet passed through the wall and into her heart, killing her. After the battle, newspapers described her as a hero, a "lady of most excellent qualities of head and heart," and her sister's house became a tourist attraction.

9. Lincoln's phrase of the people, by the people, for the people was not entirely original.

The earliest known use of the phrase of the people, by the people, for the people, which ends Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, is from the 14th century. In 1384 English philosopher John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, writing in the prologue, "The Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People." If Lincoln was not familiar with that source, he had the opportunity to read the phrase when his law partner, William Herndon, gave him a pamphlet of sermons by the reverend Theodore Parker. In the pamphlet was Parker's phrase, which Lincoln marked: "Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people."

10. Lincoln was nearly assassinated nine months before his actual assassination.

During the Civil War Lincoln and his family spent summer and fall in an isolated cottage with few guards. Supposedly the president said, "It would never do for a President to have guards with drawn sabers at his door, as if he fancied he were ... an emperor." He often slipped away from his guards to be by himself. In August 1864 Lincoln had gone for a solitary ride when a shot was fired at him. His horse bolted, at what Lincoln relayed was "break-neck speed [which] unceremoniously separated me from my eight-dollar plug hat, with which I parted company without any assent, express or implied." His hat was later found with a bullet hole in it. Lincoln dismissed the event, saying:

I can't bring myself to believe that any one has shot or will deliberately shoot at me with the purpose of killing me; although I must acknowledge that I heard this fellow's bullet whistle at an uncomfortably short distance from these headquarters of mine.

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