Sunday, November 3, 2013

Civil War Sunday-Not As an Afterthought

Possibly the most famous speech in United States history began simply, as a verbal invitation, followed later by something in writing.

On November 2, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln received this invitation:

"Gettysburg Nov. 2 1863
To His Excellency
A. Lincoln
President U. S.

The Several States having Soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, who were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, or have since died at the various hospitals which were established in the vicinity, have procured grounds on a prominent part of the Battle Field for a Cemetery, and are having the dead removed to them and properly buried.
These Grounds will be Consecrated and set apart to this Sacred purpose, by appropriate Ceremonies, on Thursday, the 19th instant. Hon Edward Everett will deliver the Oration. I am authorized by the Governors of the different States to invite you to be present, and participate in these Ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive.
It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the Great Battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for.
We hope you will be able to be present to perform this last solemn act to the Soldiers dead on this Battle Field.
I am with great Respect, Your Excellency's Obedient Servant
David Wills
Agent for A. G. Curtin Gov. of Penna.[Pennsylvania] and acting for all the States"

In the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863,  some 2500 residents of Gettysburg were left to tend to the thousands of wounded and bury the thousands more who had died during the three day battle. Gettysburg was to be the costliest battle (in lives lost) of the Civil War.   I will spare you the details of the horrific conditions endured that summer by the farmers and others who owned the land where the dead fell, and what overwhelmed remaining Union soldiers and area residents went through, but if you are interested, here is one description. This article also has a harrowing description of what the Confederate soldiers left behind in Lee's retreat experienced.

Eventually, state and local governments came together.  With financial help from every Union state whose citizens died at Gettysburg, lawyer David Willis oversaw the purchase of 17 acres for what became a national cemetery.  It was to be dedicated on November 19, 1863, and the featured speaker was going to be...., not President Lincoln.  He was invited to give some remarks after the featured orator.  You might say, he was invited almost as an afterthought. (more on that shortly).

It was, instead, a noted orator by the name of Edward Everett, a man who had served as a Congressman, a Secretary of State, a Senator and the Governor of Massachusetts, who was to give the main speech. 

So it sounds like the President was being slighted, being treated almost as an afterthought.  But, an interesting article explains that was not the case at all - that, in the 1860's Presidents were not expected to give speeches. That was the job of orators such as Everett, and Lincoln was to give a "few words" in his role as President.

Ironically, perhaps, Everett would not live to see the end of the Civil War, and Lincoln himself only outlived the end by a few days.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

As we draw closer to the 150th anniversary of the dedication of Gettysburg's National Cemetery on November 19, 1863, I will blog more about this event that became so important in our nation's history.


  1. This just gives me shivers. I would have loved to have been there.

  2. Fascinating history with details that I was not aware of. I love your Civil War posts because I always learn some new and fascinating facts!

  3. Interesting background on the speech. Sharing!


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