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Writing the Gettysburg Address

By Martin P. Johnson, University Press of Kansas 2013, $34.95

Abraham Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” at Gettysburg so effectively articulated what loyal Americans wanted to believe about the war that they hold an honored place among classic works of American literature and statecraft. Not surprisingly, in the more than seven score and ten years since it was delivered, so many myths arose around the Gettysburg Address that it can be difficult to  separate what we “know” about what happened in November 1863 from what actually did. Rarely, though, has there been such a thorough sifting through the evidence as Martin P. Johnson provides in his account of the process by which the address was crafted.

Johnson demonstrates that by the time Lincoln began his journey to Gettysburg, he had at least a full page drafted on Executive Mansion letterhead, which Johnson labels “the Letterhead Page.” Johnson then provides an account of Lincoln’s trip that makes clear that—contrary to one of the more popular myths surrounding the speech—the president had little time during the journey to really develop a speech. After reaching Gettysburg November 18, Lincoln worked further on the address, then late in the evening ran it by Secretary of State William H. Seward, resulting in what Johnson labels the “late-night Gettysburg Draft.” The following morning, Lincoln spent time on the battlefield before  the procession to the cemetery. Seeing where so many had fallen profoundly impressed the president, evident in the refinements in his “Battlefield Draft, or  delivery text.”

Johnson also delineates the factors and individuals who shaped Lincoln’s thinking in November 1863, from the developing debate over Reconstruction to the various elected and unelected officials who were actively maneuvering at the time. In light of these, Johnson declares the address could be considered “not just the work of one person’s vision but also a collective cultural production.” Still, Johnson concludes, for his skill at drawing on these forces to craft such a powerful statement of American ideals, it is to Lincoln that “all honor” for the Gettysburg Address is ultimately due. For his skill in crafting such an interesting and painstakingly detailed study, Johnson himself is due some honor as well.


Originally published in the July 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.