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Mr. Lincoln Goes to Gettysburg

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 7, Number 2

When President Abraham Lincoln learned of the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, he told the celebratory crowd gathered at the Executive Mansion that it was providential that this occurred around the nation's birthday.

"Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion." He found his occasion that fall at the dedication of the national cemetery for the soldiers who fell at Gettysburg.

Abraham Lincoln pondered his topic in the four months since the battle, and had written several drafts even before the arrangements to speak were final. By the time Mr. Lincoln left Washington by train on November 18, the speech was substantially complete.

Because of unreliable train schedules, especially in the midst of war, Mr. Lincoln made a point to leave the day before. He would stay at the home of David Wills, banker, organizer of the Gettysburg event, and owner of the largest home on the square. Still, he arrived late on the eve of the dedication because of train delays at the switching stations between Washington and Gettysburg. Nearly missing dinner, he excused himself early to study the speech, even using the house stationery to finalize the few words he would speak the next day.

At the ceremony on November 19, Lincoln followed the widely praised two-hour oration by Edward Everett, the principal speaker. Delivering his 272-word speech in just three minutes, he sat down, his brevity surprising the crowd. Scattered applause left him uncertain whether it had been "worthy of the occasion" after all. His supporters called it "thrilling," but his enemies thought it "silly." Subsequent generations of Americans proclaim the speech immortal.

One of those Americans is 17-year-old high school junior Avram Sand of Teaneck, New Jersey. Avram is among the five runners-up of the 2004 Idea of America Essay Contest, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Avram spoke for many when he answered the question, "What is the relevance of the Gettysburg Address today?"

This was not the first time Lincoln had declared the Civil War to be one of ideas and not interests. ... There is still "unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced."

Avram reminds us how Abraham Lincoln deftly used the occasion to define the meaning of the war to the American people. He explained how both North and South were to blame for its start, and how both sides must unite to contend with its lasting effects. The dedication of a cemetery at Gettysburg was more than a ritual to bury dead soldiers. Mr. Lincoln's words were a salve to heal the wounds of a divided nation--the physical wounds, the social wounds, the psychological wounds. The healing began November 19, 1863, and continues yet.