Lincoln predicted the world would little note nor long remember what he said; reporter Joseph Gilbert made sure we never forgot.
The crowd was beginning to assemble when Joseph Ignatius Gilbert found his way to the wooden stage where the dedication ceremonies for the new Soldiers Cemetery were soon to begin. It sat in an open field, already trampled to mud by many feet, in an unused portion of Evergreen Cemetery, the local burying ground for the town of Gettysburg, Pa. Banners and flags trembled in the slight breeze.
It was November 19, 1863. The weather apparently was fitful, as various accounts refer to everything from a predawn threat of rain to bright sunshine and an unseasonably warm day for mid-November. Already, the members of a German band from Philadelphia were tuning their instruments. Nearby, a photographer had set up his bulky camera and tripod and, to the amusement of early arriving spectators, was nervously darting about, fiddling with his equipment and ducking in and out from under his dark cloth hood.
As a reporter, Gilbert would have made a point of arriving early, to stake out a position where he could hear clearly the words spoken from the wooden stage and avoid being swallowed in the encroaching throng.
He especially needed to hear the remarks by Abraham Lincoln. The president would be the last to speak, and whatever he said would be the main theme of the dispatch Gilbert would telegraph to the Associated Press, the national wire service that had hired him for the day.
Over the past few days, Gettysburg, a once obscure farm town of 2,500 citizens in southeastern Pennsylvania, had become filled with strangers for the third time that year. “The streets swarmed with people from all sections of the Union,” the local Adams County Sentinel reported.
Five months earlier, in the heavy heat of early July, the armies of North and South fought through the streets and nearby fields and orchards. Then came phalanxes of workers to recover the dead, and nurses to care for 20,000 wounded—including 7,000 Confederates left behind by General Robert E. Lee’s retreating army, who filled public buildings and tent encampments set up by the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the U.S. Christian Commission.
Now, in late autumn, thousands more citizens poured in to attend the dedication of a cemetery, the final resting place for Union soldiers killed in the battles of July. The town’s hotels, boarding houses and many private homes were jammed.
“The influx of strangers began on Monday, and the trains became heavier and heavier as the day of consecration approached…swelling the crowds to immense proportions,’’ the Sentinel reported afterward. While drawn primarily by the dedication exercises and the gathering of important figures including President Abraham Lincoln, “thousands came from a desire to see the battlefield, where still, on every hand, were striking and gruesome evidences of the bloody conflict.”
The speakers’ “rude platform,” as Gilbert later described it, had been hammered together by workmen in a corner of the town graveyard, abutting the 17 acres of land newly set aside for the military cemetery.
Although historians would not agree on its precise location, Gilbert placed it at “the highest point of ground on which the battle was fought.” That was technically not true; Cemetery Hill, as it was called, indeed had been the center of the “fishhook”- shaped Union defenses. But nearby Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top, which anchored the extreme left of the blue line more than a mile to the south and was the scene of fierce combat on the second day, were higher than Cemetery Hill.
It is unclear where Gilbert positioned himself, but most likely he sat or stood near the front of the 12-by-20-foot stage. Sitting among the dignitaries on the crowded platform, as some reporters apparently did, would not have served his need to hear everything the president said.
Whatever his vantage point, Gilbert could look across to the new cemetery, where about a thousand soldiers’ graves were already in place. As designed by a Philadelphia landscape architect, they were arranged in concentric semi-circles radiating from a center. Eventually, the graves would represent the 18 Northern states that had contributed regiments to the Battle of Gettysburg. The disappearance of summer foliage revealed bare trunks and branches splintered by artillery. And even now, almost five months after the battle, the odor of death sometimes rode the breeze.
Tall, dark-haired, with a discrete goatee, Joseph Gilbert affected the somewhat dandified style of the “Bohemians,” as the battlefield correspondents called themselves. Not that he was one of them—he didn’t claim to have done any reporting under fire. Nor, at age 21, had he covered many other events of cosmic significance. His experience was limited to his hometown, Philadelphia, and more recently Harrisburg, where he was “local editor” of the Evening Telegraph—a title he admitted was “a bit high sounding.”
He was, however, energetic enough to work at two jobs. In addition to being a “newspaper kid,” as he called himself, he served as a shorthand stenographer at the Pennsylvania state capitol, recording verbatim the words of legislative debate. Gilbert’s skill in taking down the spoken word was why the Associated Press had hired him to cover the Gettysburg event.
More than a dozen other reporters were there, representing newspapers from New York, Boston and Baltimore in the East to Cincinnati, Columbus and Chicago in the West. Most were veterans of their trade. At least two, in addition to Gilbert, were “phonographers,” as shorthand practitioners were called. To the great relief of the press, Edward Everett, the day’s main speaker, had brought printed galleys of his planned two-hour speech. As for Lincoln, up to the last day or so, even his two personal secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, had no idea what he planned to say.
The Soldiers Cemetery, as it was first called, was an idea born of necessity. After the battle as many as 6,000 dead had lain in the fields, and along with the carcasses of hundreds of horses created an intolerable situation. As grieving relatives and curiosity seekers roamed the battlefields, teams of laborers burned the dead animals, collected human bodies or buried them where they had fallen, marking them with names and unit designations when possible. (Some Confederates were buried, but it would be years before all Southern dead were finally recovered.)
That November, the Sentinel described the fields as “yet strewn with the remains and relics of the fearful struggle,” including knapsacks, clothing, pistols, bayonet sheaths and other items, with as many as 5,000 temporary graves in rows along stone walls and wooden fences. These were hasty and shallow, and every rain in that wet summer eroded the topsoil, exposing the grisly remains anew.
As the problem worsened, the idea of a soldiers cemetery gained favor. Governor Andrew Curtin named a young but prestigious local lawyer, David Wills, to head a special commission. It was Wills who visualized a permanent site to hold the bodies of the fallen from each Northern state. Through Curtin, Wills arranged for financing by the states, bought the land and planned the ceremony. He assembled a program of prayers, music and speeches, the tour de force to be a speech by Everett—the former senator, Harvard University president and secretary of state, who was considered the nation’s best public orator. The event was set for October 23, but when Everett pleaded prior commitments, it was moved to November 19.
On November 2, Wills sent a letter to Washington asking if Lincoln would be willing to follow Everett with “a few appropriate remarks’’ to “formally set apart these grounds” for the cemetery. In a separate note, Wills also invited Lincoln to be his house guest, as “the hotels in our town will be crowded and in confusion.”
Wills’ invitation to Lincoln seems to have been an afterthought; the Library of Congress, which owns the letters, has called 17 days “extraordinarily short notice for presidential participation.” But Lincoln accepted both invitations, evidently without concern over what he could have seen as a political snub or an inexcusable oversight.
The night before the dedication, the mood was more celebratory than somber. Gettysburg’s streets teemed with people, singing patriotic songs and cheering the military and political figures who had come. Lincoln arrived about dusk by special four-car train from Washington, with an entourage that included Secretary of State William Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher, Lincoln’s two secretaries, Nicolay and Hay, and his personal black valet, William Johnson. French and Italian ministers represented the diplomatic corps, and several reporters also rode the train. Provost Marshal General John Fry provided personal security in lieu of Lincoln’s regular bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, who had gone ahead to Gettysburg. The Marine Band and a group of disabled veterans served as presidential honor guard. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase declined to make the trip, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton—though a logical participant in such an event—stayed behind to monitor telegraph reports from Chattanooga, where another major battle was taking shape.
Wills met the train and escorted Lincoln on foot to his four-story home two blocks away. There they joined Everett, Curtin and others. During the evening, as 37 invited guests dined together, groups of citizens gathered in the town square outside and a band from the 5th New York Artillery and a choir from Baltimore serenaded Lincoln. The president stepped outside the Wills house for a few moments to thank the crowd but declined to deliver a speech, saying he had none prepared.
The throng happily moved on, calling on other dignitaries to offer remarks. Nicolay later wrote that these were “not always perfunctory,” but tinged with political tension, mainly relating to rifts among top Pennsylvania state leaders and the already looming issue of the 1864 election. Seward, though regarded by some Northern abolitionists as soft on emancipation, sounded the sharpest theme, calling slavery “the origin and agent of the treason that is without justification and without parallel.”
When the front-porch orations ended, Nicolay said, “the visitors as were blessed with friends or good luck” found beds where “in spite of brass-bands and the restless tramping of the less fortunate along the sidewalks, they slept the slumber of mental, added to physical, weariness.”
The next morning, as the hour for the dedication neared, Ward Lamon organized the official party, with the Marine Band in front and Lincoln, astride a chestnut bay horse and with Seward beside him, leading the procession. As the crowd flowed toward Cemetery Hill, Joseph Gilbert felt the public mood had changed dramatically, the previous night’s patriotic revelry giving way to a more solemn atmosphere.
“Nature seemed to veil her face in sorrow for the awful tragedy enacted there,” he would write. “The darkness on Cemetery Hill became absolutely funereal, the mournful sighing of the wind on a typical November day—all these emphasized the melancholy spirit of the occasion. A profound silence reigned. The ten thousand spectators, apparently depressed by a realization of the horrors of war and the dangers that had threatened their homes, were as quiet and inanimate as statues, and, except for a few acclamations when the President arrived, the silence remained unbroken throughout the day.”
In addition to the Cabinet members and diplomats, the official entourage included governors and legislators from seven states, blue-uniformed and braided military officers, and local nabobs. Among the last to arrive by carriage was Everett. Ailing at age 69, the silver-haired orator rested briefly in a private tent before taking his seat on Lincoln’s right, with Seward on the left. For all his feverish efforts, the anonymous photographer somehow failed to capture any close-up pictures of the platform assemblage. The only known photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg shows him seated, bareheaded, surrounded by the crowd, with the hulking Lamon beside him.
“A sea of upturned faces covered the slope in front. The ceremonies of dedication were solemn and impressive,” Gilbert remembered. After an invocation and music, he said, Everett began his speech with “a minute account of the three days’ battle, discussed the Rebellion, combatted the fallacy of the States Rights dogma that the states are the principals and the National Government a mere agency, and championed the principle of Nationality.”
As Everett rambled on, Lincoln at least once took out his own notes, glanced over them and returned them to his pocket. The oration, meanwhile, proved too long for some spectators, who drifted away from the mass. Finally, Everett sat down and the Baltimore glee club delivered a hymn written for the occasion, which began:“This spot where in their graves/We place our country’s braves/Who fell in freedom’s holy cause/Fighting for liberties and laws/Let tears abound.”
Then it was Lincoln’s turn to speak. Ward Lamon stood and called out, “The President of the United States!” As the tall man in black“came forward,” Gilbert was struck by his“apparent excellent physical condition” and a face, “fringed by a newly grown beard,” that seemed “less care-worn and haggard” than in the past.
“He stood for a moment with hands clasped and head bowed in an attitude of mourning—a personification of the sorrow and sympathy of the nation,” Gilbert recalled. “Adjusting his old-fashioned spectacles, a pair with arms reaching to his temples, he produced from a pocket of his Prince Albert coat several sheets of paper from which he read slowly and feelingly….His marvelous voice, careering in fullness of utterance and clearness of tone, was perfectly audible on the outskirts of the crowd. He made no gestures or attempts at display and none were needed.”
The other witnesses, including Nicolay, would say that Lincoln appeared to speak without relying on the notes in his hand, as if he had memorized the speech, as legions of American schoolchildren would do in years to come. Many spectators—hundreds, by Gilbert’s estimate—who had wandered off during Everett’s two-hour elocution were drawn back by the president’s clear tenor voice, and became “spell-bound by the majestic personality of the great man of whom they had heard so much and now saw for the first time.” They stood in silence, “many with uncovered heads…not a demonstrative or even appreciative audience.”
Gilbert’s story, telegraphed to AP, appeared in many newspapers the next day and for days afterward, almost certainly the most widely published first version of the Gettysburg Address. In New York, it was in the Times, the Tribune, the Herald and the Brooklyn Eagle. A week later, it showed up in the weekly Hawk-Eye in Burlington, Iowa. Bylines being a thing of the future at Associated Press, it bore no reporter’s name, nor was it credited to AP by most papers. But Gilbert’s account is readily identifiable by specific elements, most notably a few errors and his notations of applause at six points:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (applause)
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 battle-field of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting-place of 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. (applause)
The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. (applause)
It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the refinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. (applause) 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 the cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain, (applause)
that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that governments of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (long continued applause)
Many papers wrote their own introductions, or leads, to the Gettysburg story. In the procedural journalistic style of the day—the “inverted pyramid” and the “five W’s” were yet to be invented—most published accounts opened with elaborate descriptions of the scene rather than the most important news, which by any measure would have been the president’s speech. In modern journalistic parlance, they “buried the lead.”
With creative editors embellishing the material, such details as the size of the crowd varied wildly. The New York Times claimed “about 15,000” spectators, the Chicago Tribune “between 30,000 and 50,000.”Historians appear to have settled on a figure of 10,000, which Gilbert himself used in his recollection years later.
Published accounts of the address, including Gilbert’s and at least two others supposedly based on shorthand transcription, differed as to Lincoln’s exact words. Gilbert later wrote that he didn’t consult his own shorthand notes but borrowed “the President’s manuscript, with his permission” and copied the text. Still, nobody got the speech exactly right, and some reporters were hopelessly winging it. These discrepancies suggest that members of the press at Gettysburg did very little comparing of notes.
The two most accurate versions of Lincoln’s remarks were by Gilbert and Charles Hale, who was reporting for the Boston Daily Advertiser and also knew shorthand. Some historians have suggested Hale’s was more reliable; author William E. Barton, for example, says Gilbert relied on the written speech, while Hale reported what he heard Lincoln say. If true, Barton fails to explain why Hale, as well as Gilbert, left out the word “poor,” in the phrase “far above our poor power to add or detract,” the only mistake the two had in common.
Hale was one of three “commissioners” appointed by the governor of Massachusetts to represent that state at the dedication, and who said in a subsequent report that the speech “has not generally been reported rightly, having been marred by errors in telegraphing,” and attached what they called“the correct form, as the words actually spoken by the President, with great deliberation, were taken down by one of the undersigned”—Charles Hale.
Perhaps Hale, by virtue of being a Harvard man and the nephew of Edward Everett, was automatically accorded more credibility than the young AP reporter from Harrisburg. The fact remains, however, that while Gilbert’s version contained five minor errors to Hale’s four, it was the example that Lincoln himself would later rely on in making copies at the White House.
By some accounts, Lincoln first thought the two-minute speech had fallen flat. It could be that after Everett’s long oration, spectators were simply caught off guard by the president’s brevity. In fact, the Philadelphia Press reporter, John Young, wrote later that after Lincoln finished, he had asked if that “was all,” and Lincoln replied, “Yes, for the present.” It could also explain why the photographer, for all his bustling, failed to capture Lincoln speaking.
Whatever the case, press reports of crowd reaction were poles apart. One scribe, W.H. Cunningham, said there was none. The Chicago Tribune reporter cited two outbursts, including“immense” applause after the words “can never forget what they did here.” Gilbert noted that simply as “applause.”
In a final Gettysburg vignette, Gilbert recalled that while walking back to town, he was “overtaken, on the rough country road, by the Presidential cavalcade of thirty or more distinguished civic and military officials.” Lincoln “bestrode a spirited animal and controlled it with the skill of an expert horseman. With characteristic self-unconcern, he had left his escort behind and was nearly a city block in advance of Secretary Seward, the nearest member of it. His plain black overcoat and high silk hat contrasted oddly with the glittering uniforms of his attendants. As he passed there was an expression of intense gratification upon his usually impassive countenance….His grand figure soon disappeared in the distance and an unaccountable foreboding of evil to befall him oppressed me.”
Richard Pyle is a former Associated Press staff writer with nearly 50 years experience covering news in the United States and abroad.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.