“The notes of a solemn bugle call resounded over the Gettysburg hills. Betsy opened her eyes and lay still in bed, listening to the bugles softly echoing each other in the stillness of breaking dawn…” Blue, Gray & Crimson, page 327.
November 19, 1863, was the date Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address. But did you know that a lot more happened that day? Lincoln was not the keynote speaker, nor was he the crowds’ focus. What really happened on that history day? Today, we trace the outline of the historic event.
Dedicating a National Cemetery
The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 left massive destruction in the local community. Field hospitals, military equipment, and dead soldiers covered the area. David Wills and other prominent citizens of Gettysburg proposed the idea of creating a national cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers.
Work on the cemetery had begun on October 27, and an elaborate dedication ceremony had been planned. The event was originally supposed to be on October 23, but the keynote speaker – Edward Everett – needed more time to work on his address, and the date was moved to November 19, 1863.
Although the town had experienced a semi-wild party the evening before, by the morning of the 19th, folks had settled down and were preparing themselves for a solemn day. In many ways, this ceremony was a large-scale funeral, a time when the people drew together to mourn, remember, and pledge to keep fighting.
The Day’s Schedule
The proceedings started late, so it was after 10am before the solemn procession began moving through the streets of Gettysburg toward the speakers’ platform on Cemetery Hill. The procession included military bands (playing dirges), Union soldiers, Union officers, President Lincoln, members of the president’s cabinet, political dignitaries, representative delegations from northern cities, students and faculty members from Gettysburg’s Pennsylvania College and Lutheran Theological Seminary, private citizens, and Mr. Everett.
When they finally arrived at the speakers’ platform and the crowds had gathered round (while the Marine Band continued to play mournful tunes), the actual ceremony began. Ward Lamon – self-appointed security guard of President Lincoln and the official master of ceremonies – read messages sent by invited dignitaries who had been unable to attend.
Reverend Stockton offered a prayer and led the assembled crowd in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Marine Band played “The Old Hundredth.”
Then Mr. Everett rose and began his oration. (Incidentally, he gave his entire, approximately 2 hour speech from memory!) Everett’s address detailed the battle and mentioned the trials of the local civilians; he also used Classical imagery and was sidetracked into a lengthy explanation of why the war had to be won. I have read the address and overall it is very good…to the modern reader it is incredibly long-winded, but we must remember that those were the days were good oration was admired and greatly appreciated.
About 2 hours later, Mr. Everett concluded, and a Maryland choir sang a specially written dirge. Then, Ward Lamon introduced President Lincoln, who stood, put on his reading spectacles and read his address in approximately 2 1/2 MINUTES.
Following the president’s speech, another sad hymn was sung. Reverend Baugher pronounced a benediction and an eight-gun artillery salute resounded. The ceremony was over, and the procession returned to town.
Lincoln, Everett, and other important people ate dinner at David Wills’s home. Then they attended a patriotic meeting in one of the Gettysburg churches. (Watch for more information on this! I am currently reading a brand-new history book about the third Gettysburg Address and it’s quite remarkable…) And in the evening, Lincoln left Gettysburg.
Re-thinking Our Imaginative Image
I think sometimes we imagine that Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address and it was the highlight of the day. I think sometimes we suppose Edward Everett was only as a literary foil, used to make Lincoln’s short eloquence greater.
Lincoln’s address was history making…in later decades. But it is important to remember that there was much more to the event of November 19th than Lincoln’s speech. People did not come to hear Lincoln speak. They came to honor the soldiers who had fought and died at Gettysburg.
Never let the hoopla of an event or the imagined highlights obscure the realities. The reality of November 19, 1863, was that 7,000 Americans had been killed in the Gettysburg fields. November 19, 1863, was a day to remember their sacrifices…it just happened that “a new birth of freedom” and a legend also occurred on that day and forever changed the focus in the history books.
P.S. Wondering what the Gettysburg citizens actually thought of Lincoln and his speech? Find out next week!