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Staying the Course at Gettysburg

By William Marvel 
Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: January 21, 2010 
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Robert E. Lee had no sooner retreated from the battlefield at Gettysburg than scavengers had swooped in to prowl for souvenirs, many of which ultimately stocked local museums. With a legion of humanitarian volunteers, those relic hunters formed the first wave of tourists to besiege the town. The site of the war's greatest battle became an instant attraction, for it lay in friendly territory, and—unlike Antie­tam—it could be reached conveniently by railroad. Four days after James Longstreet's grand assault on Cemetery Ridge a visitor from Baltimore disembarked from the train at Oxford, 10 miles outside of Gettysburg, where he found the York Pike already crowded with pedestrians, horsemen and a seemingly endless variety of conveyances. Most of those returning from the battlefield assumed a much more somber air than the convivial excursionists who had not yet seen the place, but at that early date the woundedhad not yet ceased to scream, and the surgeons had not put away their saws.

As late as the second week of August a British visitor still found the field littered with clothing and equipment, and it reeked from the stench of unburied horses; he also ran across three unburied Confederates in isolated spots. By November, the wreckage of men and materiel at Gettysburg had been swept up. The dead, a majority of them Confederate, had been buried, but those Union soldiers whose bodies had not been claimed by relatives were being exhumed and carted to a new location on land bought by the Federal government. There, near the bend of Meade's fishhook defense line and half a mile from the spot where Pickett's last fragments had surrendered, a local contractor prepared a national cemetery. Following the design of a landscape architect, laborers laid the moldering remains in a series of concentric semicircles, grouped by state, with a large section for those who could not be identified. Many wounded still lingered, but they had been segregated in hospitals on a large tract outside of town, so they no longer disturbed the sensibilities of fashionable Washington visitors who considered their sojourns incomplete until they had "done" Gettysburg.

The committee in charge of dedicating the new soldiers' cemetery fixed Thursday, November 19, for the ceremony, and invited scores of dignitaries, including the president. Edward Everett, the 1860 vice-presidential candidate on the Constitutional Union ticket, accepted the job of presenting the principal oration, while the president agreed to add a few approving remarks of his own. Lincoln's train left Washington at noon the day before, carrying his two personal secretaries, three cabinet members, the French, Italian and Canadian ministers, and a number of hangers-on. At Baltimore they picked up General Robert Schenck, and at Hanover that afternoon they met a trainload of governors coming down from Harrisburg. They pulled into Gettysburg at 6 that evening and all split up, with Lincoln taking a room in the home of the man who chaired the cemetery project, at the "diamond" in the middle of town. Thousands of strangers filled the streets, drinking whatever they could find in the way of alcohol. At night a crowd gathered in the diamond and called on the president and Secretary of State William Seward at their side-by-side lodgings, asking for speeches but getting nothing much from the president and only an inaudible ramble from Seward.

Fog blanketed Gettysburg the next morning as a squadron of cavalry, a regiment of infantry, and two batteries of artillery formed, with their van in the diamond, to escort the dignitaries to the cemetery. At 10 General Darius Couch, formerly of the Army of the Potomac, waved the procession into motion, but it crept down Baltimore Street at an excruciating pace. The diamond lay only a mile from the cemetery even by a roundabout route down the Emmitsburg and Taneytown roads, but it was 11:45 before the troops delivered their charges to a substantial raised platform on what Meade and his generals had immortalized as Cemetery Hill.

One of the guests from Washington estimated that the stand held 250 notables. Governor Andrew Curtin was there, and Horatio Seymour of New York, and even Joel Parker of dissident New Jersey. Governor Augustus Bradford of Maryland, perhaps still aggravated at military interference with his state's November 4 election, took a seat with them. So did Governor Francis Peirpoint, chief execu­tive of Virginia Unionists' rump government, as well as the present, former and future governors of Ohio. They sat on the crest of the hill, looking down on the civilian dead to the east and the fresh graves of the Union soldiers to the west—"wedged in rows like herrings in a box," snorted an officer who had fought there, who cringed at the thought of low-bid contractors plucking the remains from sacred battlefield graves. Some 15,000 men, women and children circled around, outnumbering the dusty horde that had burst out of the woods on Seminary Ridge 20 long weeks before.

After a band had set the tone with a funeral dirge, the white-maned chaplain of the House of Representatives rose to open the proceedings with a prayer so long and lugubrious that he seemed to hope it might be mistaken for the oration of the day. The sun finally broke through during his attenuated obsecration, as though pouring forth a welcome from the heavens for Edward Everett—who, after the band drowned the chaplain's echo with a hymn called "Old Hundred," rose to deliver the dedication address.

Edward Everett had completed more than half of his 70th year, and on that day he had less than 14 months to live. He had served Massachusetts as a congressman, sena­tor and governor from the conservative wing of the Whig Party, scorning abolition as much as slavery, but secession had made him a fierce Unionist, and the words he uttered carried that flavor.

Twenty minutes or more into Everett's address, after the requisite classical allusions and prelimi­nary homage to those who had stopped Lee at Gettysburg, he attempted to rekindle the collective hysteria that had sent the North into a war that secession itself had failed to provoke. The South did not seek independence, he declared: It sought domination of the North, or at least possession of the national capital. The clash at Fort Sumter had been planned in the South to bring Virginia and North Carolina into the Confederacy, he charged, and that plan had been carefully orchestrated (apparently with the convenient but unwitting cooperation of Abraham Lincoln).

From the observations of Union soldiers during and just after the battle, many a conservative Gettysburg citizen would have disputed Everett's interpretation of the genesis of the war, but the aging orator launched uninterrupted into a 45-minute description of the battle, day by day and general by general. That finished, he filled the rest of his two hours with more political and historical argument. Everett, who had praised the rebel Patriots of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, now denounced the rebels of the South as traitors who bore the sole guilt of bringing a dreadful war to the continent, yet he went on to cast an image of future fraternity over the peace that would inevitably follow reunion with those errant-but-forgiven brothers. It had happened after the generation-long Wars of the Roses, he said, and after 20 years of civil war in England, and after the Thirty Years War: Antagonists of the most bitter civil conflicts had always resumed peaceful communion.

Waiting to speak behind Everett, the president may have winced to hear his audience reminded of wars that had dragged on for decades, and to know that a war-weary nation would read that reminder in the morrow's newspapers. The exaggerated optimism of recent Republican electoral victories had begun to subside: Hopeful and devoted Unionists might readily perceive the decline of Confederate fortunes and the attrition of Southern will, but cynics and conservatives saw only the withering of personal liberty, the bankrupting of the treasury, the endless slaughter and the frustration of the massive Northern army, which lay contained at Chattanooga, stymied in Virginia, and just going under siege at Knoxville. Much of the nation wavered between those extreme impressions, and visions of years more of war would not endear them to his course. To be won over, they must be shown a worthy purpose, which he proposed to give them.

Lincoln opened by invoking the twin ideals of the civil religion, liberty and democracy, which had already begun to blend in the American mind as two halves of a mutually dependent whole. Then, having set a venerable foundation, he gravitated to a more tangible subject that could not fail to command the sympathy of his listeners: Like Everett before him, and Pericles before them both, he embraced the image of the heroic soldier, wringing from it the personal pathos inevitably accorded to fallen sons, husbands and fathers. He might have measured the success of his mechanism by the applause that erupted thereafter every time he mentioned "the brave men," and one reporter recorded "tremendous applause" after Lincoln spoke of "what they did here." Four of his nine sentences appealed for devotion—not to the cause of liberty or equality, but to "these honored dead," or "they who fought here"—and all four times the crowd responded spontaneously, once breaking in at mid-sentence. Then, having wrapped the political cause of nationalism in the more personal emotion of compassion for the dead, he pleaded with the living to dedicate themselves to the "unfinished work" of those who had struggled there, and to "take increased devotion to that cause" for which they had died.

In his brief and ingeniously efficient remarks, he appealed to emotion rather than to the more critical realm of intellect. Many might have challenged the logic of his implied premise that liberty and equality could not be achieved except within the original boundaries of the United States: Chief among those who disputed it had been the more fervent abolitionists among his current supporters, who had been so willing to accept secession to end the association with slavery. The president had obscured that deductive defect by speaking to the heart, and creating the impression that the value of those fundamental principles had been amplified by the blood already shed in defense of his debatable premise. Since many had already died in that effort, he seemed to say, then others should continue the struggle at the risk of their own lives.

As Lincoln asked for this renewed commitment, his only son of military age may have glanced once or twice out a window that opened on the Harvard quadrangle; Robert Lincoln would see no service until the last eight weeks of the war, when his father found him a safe spot on Ulysses Grant's staff. Edward Everett had three healthy sons between the ages of 23 and 33, two of whom had been selected in the July draft, but both had escaped that levy and none of the three ever chose to take up arms. Meanwhile, in the anthracite regions north of Gettysburg, poor Irish miners continued their violent resistance to conscription even as the orators rose and retired on the stage, and when General Couch completed his duties as commander of the dignitaries' escort, he would send troops to suppress that recusant enclave. The more dangerous avenues for devoting oneself to the causes of liberty and equality, it seemed, could be left to others of lesser resources—even if they too were not willing.

If such inconsistencies occurred to those wandering away from Cemetery Hill that afternoon, no record of their skepticism has come to light. Lincoln's carefully chosen words gratified those who still shared his dedication to preserving the Union, and persuaded many who had wavered to accept further sacrifice, lest those earlier sacrifices be wasted. Those who doubted his course continued to protest, but Lincoln's address had painted their most cogent criticisms as tasteless carping: Now their opposition to the war not only insulted the struggle of the men in uniform, but belittled the sacrifices of the dead. Advocates of the war worked that ploy with diminishing subtlety until peace returned, by which time the sentimental plea Lincoln had employed at Gettysburg had deterio­rated into the crude political bullying known as waving the bloody shirt.

His mission accomplished, the president and his famished entourage rode back into town between the ranks of their escort. In the house on the diamond he received all who wished to shake his hand and compliment his eloquence until it was time for dinner, and afterward the marshals of the event arrived to take him to the Presbyterian Church to hear one more speech before he returned to Washington. At 6 o'clock he and his secretaries made their way to the depot, and half an hour later his special train departed from Gettysburg Station.


3 Responses to “Staying the Course at Gettysburg”


  1. 1
    Jim Cooke says:

    What an excellent summation of the events at the Dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery! Thank you.
    There is a new book available — "The Eloquence of Edward Everett – America's Greatest Orator"by Northeastern University's Dr. Richard Katula — You will find it well worth your attention. It is valuable not only for its focus on Gettysburg but also on Everett's oration on "The Character of Washington." This Washington Address was repeated some 135 times and all the proceeds given to the Ladies Association of Mount Vernon; this, enabled them to buy the property. Had it not been for orator Everett — Mount Vernon would have likely fallen to rack and ruin. I believe the book is available from Amazon.
    http://www.crankyyankees.net

  2. 2
    Don says:

    Too bad Lincoln didn't recite the opening lines when he invoked the Declaration of Independence in his speech.

    "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation".

  3. 3
    Abraham Lincoln says:

    Here's a quote from Texas's Declaration of Independence:

    "All white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations."

    I ask, how does this square with:

    "Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it."



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