The Day of the Gettysburg Address

“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.

A large crowd gathered for the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery

A large crowd gathered for the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery

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.”

Edward Everett

Edward Everett

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.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Wondering what the Gettysburg citizens actually thought of Lincoln and his speech? Find out next week!


Fleeing To Stay Free (Gettysburg Civilians)

Spoiler Alert! The Westmore Family in Blue, Gray & Crimson stay at their home through the battle and aftermath, but not every Gettysburg family did. Some, like the Thorn Family, left their home because the officers ordered them to leave. Many others departed to get to a safer location away from the battle.

However, there is one group of Gettysburg civilians who fled or hid to maintain their freedom. I wasn’t able to work their history into my recent novel, but I think it would be wrong to not share their story in our “Back to Gettysburg” series.

Part of the Community

8% of Gettysburg’s pre-battle population were free African Americans. Located just seven miles north of the Mason-Dixon line, Gettysburg had a couple known”safe houses” on the Underground Railroad in or near town. Some of the escaped slaves wanted to stay closer to the border, hoping family members would join them, or they felt comfortable in the Gettysburg community and didn’t want to risk possibly high prejudice in larger towns farther north.

Mag Palm, Gettysburg Resident

Mag Palm, Gettysburg Resident

The freemen became part of the Gettysburg community. They worked as hired laborers, often saving enough money to buy small farms in the Cemetery Ridge area.

One woman – Mag Palm – worked as an assistant in one of the town shops. On a scary day, some Southerners came into town and tried to forcibly drag her back to slavery; she fought them, and her employer and some other men in town came to her assistance. This incident is one example of the dangers still surrounding the escaped slaves.

The Gettysburg Campaign

Fearing capture and deportation back to slavery in the South, the African Americans in Gettysburg were always on the alert. At the first rumors of any Confederate raid, they gathered up their possessions and fled.

Now we must address a dark side of the Gettysburg campaign. While it is true that Confederate soldiers were ordered to treat civilians well, that order did not include freemen. Freemen and their families were captured and sent back to slavery during the Gettysburg campaign.

The African American community in Gettysburg was terrified. And, sadly, there wasn’t much their neighbors, employers, or abolitionist friends could do to prevent the tragedy. And so, when the campaign rumors began, many African Americans fled the Gettysburg area.

Surviving The Battle

Not all fled, though. Several families sheltered and hid their endangered neighbors while the Confederates were in town during the battle. One African American woman and her daughter hurried to the home where they helped with cooking and laundry (they were paid for their work, of course – they weren’t slaves) and begged for assistance. The family devised a hiding place, and the women remained safe throughout the battle. Thanks to their kind-hearted neighbors, these women were spared.

Basil Biggs and his wife owned a farm near Gettysburg

Basil Biggs and his wife owned a farm near Gettysburg

The Same Destruction

We’ve talked about how the farmer’s fields were ruined by the battle and their homes were used as field hospitals. The African American land owners experienced the same hardships, though in some instances the destruction on their property was worse. Not because the armies knew who owned the land and were wantonly malicious, but because of these farms locations.

Many of the farms and fields owned by African Americans were along Cemetery Ridge, which became the backbone of the Union position and the point of assault for Confederate attacks. The heavy, concentrated fighting left extreme destruction and the land owners would return to find their crops and hopes ruined.

Building The Resting Place

Remember the Gettysburg African Americans worked as hired laborers, if they didn’t own land or a small business. The Gettysburg agricultural economy was in shambles after the battle. There weren’t many fields left to harvest, so their was little paid work available.

A work crew preparing to transport a deceased Union soldier to Gettysburg National Cemetery

A work crew preparing to transport a deceased Union soldier to Gettysburg National Cemetery

In the autumn, work on Gettysburg National Cemetery began…and the bodies of Union soldiers had to be removed from their original burial places, transported in coffins, and reburied in the new cemetery. The cemetery planners agreed to paid a minimal sum for each deceased Union soldier transported to the final resting place.

Photographic evidence and accounts show that African American men took the job offer – unpleasant as it was – and worked alongside their neighbors, the planners, and the architects to build Gettysburg National Cemetery.


The African American community of Gettysburg suffered the same hardships and battle destruction as their neighbors, but their experience was intensified by extreme fear and the need to flee or hide.

I wonder if these people were present for the Dedication of the National Cemetery (and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). Personally, I think they were there. Quietly, at the edges of the crowd, some of them must have heard Lincoln’s words… They must have rejoiced and wondered at the beautiful meaning behind the president’s words “a new birth of freedom” – that promise that the chains were gone and they were American citizens.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts on this topic? Had you ever considered this aspect of Gettysburg’s history before?

For older readers (late high-school and up) I’d highly recommend the book The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History – Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle by M.S. Creighton (2005). Have you read it?