About 8,000 people gathered near Gettysburg on November 19, 2013 for the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was an impressive assemblage even by Gettysburg standards. In addition to the politicians, dignitaries, and historians, there were throngs of locals and tourists, school kids and civil war buffs. Perhaps most impressive were the handful of candidates for citizenship who would that day join the ranks of their fellow Americans. Thanks to modern technology and the National Park Service Social Media Team, many thousands more were able to follow along online, via the streaming webcast or on Facebook.
If you watched the commemoration on your computer the only thing you really missed out on, other than the sense of place you can only get from being there, was the cold. It was freezing, even by my relatively hardy New England standards. It was the kind of cold that seemed to emanate from the ground and then radiate through the soles of your shoes.
The commemoration lasted about 90 minutes. I spent most of that time intently watching from afar and quietly shifting from foot to foot in hopes of delaying the onset of frostbite. Even with the cold, it was an impressive hour and a half.
By comparison, the 2013 ceremony was brief. The dedication on November 19, 1863 took more than three hours on a day that was only slightly less chilly. Even by 19th century standards, the ceremony was a long one. Brigadier General John Gibbon was one of only a handful of soldiers who witnessed both the battle and the Gettysburg Address. He got restless part way through and left to explore the battlefield with his aide Frank Haskell. They toured the field and returned only to find the ceremony still in full swing.
The relative brevity of the modern proceedings was due in no small part to the absence of Edward Everett. Everett, who was as well known then as he is obscure today, spoke for about two hours on November 19, 1863 – well beyond the attention span of most 21st century Americans. Had our modern commemoration included a recitation of Everett’s address in addition to the annual offering of Lincoln’s immortal words, it’s entirely possible that the cold would have won the battle for supremacy of my already frigid feet.
That being said, I thought a lot about Everett on Dedication Day. References to Lincoln were in abundance, as they rightly should be. I’m not sure I caught a single reference to Lincoln’s opening act, however. I have a soft spot in my heart for Everett, probably for the same reason Ringo Starr is my favorite Beatle. It’s not easy being constantly overshadowed.
Everett has the distinction of being one of the most accomplished and least celebrated individuals in the pantheon of American statesmen. By 1863 he had served as a Congressman, Governor, Ambassador, Secretary of State, President of Harvard, and Senator, alongside being a Vice Presidential candidate in the election of 1860. Impressive enough, yet the well spring of Everett’s once significant fame was his skill as an orator. In Everett’s day oration was an art form and he was the undisputed master of the medium. If you needed someone to dedicate a monument, welcome a foreign dignitary, raise some money, or advance a cause, Everett was your guy.
To borrow a phrase from Ron Burgundy, Everett was kind of a big deal. So when it came to consecrating the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery it was almost a matter of course that it would involve an oration and Everett would give it. Gettysburgian David Wills, the driving force behind much of the creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, formally invited Everett on September 23rd, long before Lincoln got his invite. Everett accepted – with conditions. He couldn’t do it any earlier than November 19th. Wills had originally intended for the ceremony to take place on October 23rd, but quality takes time. It would take a great deal of energy to prepare something worthy. As Everett explained to Wills, “The occasion is one of great importance, not to be dismissed with a few trifling remarks.” Everett also requested that a tent be erected next to the wooden platform on Cemetery Hill. He was sixty nine at the time and his health was poor. In particular, he was afflicted by a troublesome kidney ailment. Besides offering a place of quiet and reflection prior to his oratorical effort, he might need the privacy to heed the call of nature.
Perhaps the biggest concession Everett required dealt with the dead. Wills did not intend to begin the work of reburying the dead until after the dedication. Everett requested that the process begin prior to November 19th. His reasoning was purely artistic. He felt his words would have more meaning, the setting would be more powerful, if when he spoke he did so over the bodies of the slain.
Edward “Ever-at-it” Everett got to work crafting his Gettysburg address. He knew his speech must do three things: Honor and pay tribute to the dead, offer a history of the battle, and give meaning to the deaths of thousands of Americans. None of this would be particularly easy, but his history would be perhaps the most technically difficult of the three. Barely three months had passed since the battle with relatively few published sources to consult. Even George Meade’s official report on the campaign had yet to be made public. Despite this significant hurdle, Everett was able to craft a surprisingly thorough history by communicating with individuals such as Henry Halleck, George Meade, Michael Jacobs and John Bachelder. Yet even with this expert help, Everett had difficulty making sense of the battle. No one account seemed to agree with the other. He jotted down in his diary the essential problem:
“The close observation, which I have had occasion to make of the accounts of Meade’s Campaign in July have convinced me, more than I ever felt it before, how uncertain the accounts of great battles must be. By dexterous selection of detail & choice of words, the very same incidents are related in a directly opposite manner by the two parties.”
Everett’s finished oration came in at 13,582 words. That’s roughly two hours’ worth of material if delivered with the appropriate pauses and careful enunciation. He had it printed and distributed prior to the ceremony so that every reporter present, rather than furiously scribbling in short hand, could have a clean copy readily available.
Everett’s journey to Gettysburg was uneventful. He arrived a full day before Lincoln, time enough to tour the battlefield with Professor Michael Jacobs of Pennsylvania College. Everett had been to battlefields before, both at home and abroad. He had seen the Plain of Marathon, Lexington Green, and the nearly eroded remains of the patriot redoubt on Breed’s Hill. Yet these were the battlefields of a different age. Gettysburg in November of 1863 was still a place of horror, even after four and a half months of clean up. It was a jarring experience for Everett.
“We saw everywhere, on the route, the graves of those, who were buried where they fell; a bit of flat wood at the head & foot serving for a temporary landmark soon to disappear. Some of the rebels fell among the rocks between round top and little round top, & where there was no earth that could be thrown over them. Their bodies were covered with rocks.”
The night before the dedication the town took on a carnival like atmosphere. By this time President Lincoln and his entourage had arrived as had thousands of visitors, reporters, and sightseers. Excitement in Gettysburg had reached a fever pitch. Throngs of people filled the streets, the houses, the taverns. Bands played. Politicians speechified. It was a festival atmosphere. One reporter described it as a “soggy November night” and that a “corner in a tavern was a crowning mercy.”
Everett stayed the night of November 18th in the Wills House, along with his daughter, President Lincoln, and at least 36 other people. Every bed and floor was occupied as the structure strained to accommodate the guests inside.
Today the David Wills House is owned by the National Park Service and thanks to our partners at the Gettysburg Foundation, is open to the public. The night of November 18, 2013 the entry fee was waived and thousands came out for the chance to stand in Lincoln’s bedroom, 150 years to the minute that Lincoln occupied it. I went as well and braved the November chill and the crowds to try to connect with the history that was made there.
The house was packed and the combined body heat of scores of people shuffling through the rooms caused the temperature to spike. This too reminded me of Everett. John Russell Young, a reporter for the Philadelphia Press, managed to get an audience with Everett the night of November 18. Everett’s room inside the Wills House was “uncomfortably warm,” Young noted. “He had been carefully put away…as though he were an exotic and needed precious care.”
Our modern unfamiliarity with Everett was not shared by Young. “We of this generation do not realize the space which Edward Everett filled, at least in the imagination of the younger men,” Young later remembered. “He was the embodiment of a noble and stainless fame…he seemed like some stately comrade of Adams and Jay, stepped out from the sacred past.” Everything about Everett seemed old fashioned. He used out dated pronunciations. His manners were “antique” and “courtly,” and when he spoke he waved about a white handkerchief.
Everett’s night was an unpleasant one. The noise outside was incessant, and though he had delivered countless orations in the past there was some nervousness about the following day’s events. Everett was also concerned that his privacy would be interrupted by the Governor of Pennsylvania. Everyone in the Wills House, with the exception of Lincoln, had to share a room if not a bed. For example, Everett’s daughter Charlotte was put into a bed with two other girls. The bed eventually collapsed under their combined weight sending them all to the floor. Wills had debated putting Andrew Curtin in Everett’s room, a thought the sixty nine year old Everett, with his troublesome bowels, did not relish. “I did not get to bed till ½ past 11” Everett wrote, “& the fear of having the executive of Penna. Tumbled in upon me kept me awake till one.”
The dedicatory events of November 19th began with a procession from the center of town to the cemetery. Most of the dignitaries present rode in the parade, including Lincoln. Everett did not, preferring the solitude of his tent near the platform. He was rather aloof prior to the event. His illness may be partially to blame, but Everett had the habit of becoming reticent prior to speaking. “I do not like to talk,” he would once explain. “It is rather more agreeable to me, just before speaking, to be alone.”
Perhaps as many as 15,000 people were in attendance on Cemetery Hill for the 1863 dedication. They stretched across the hillside in front of the wooden platform where Lincoln and the others found their seat. Everett emerged from his tent about twenty minutes after everyone else was already in place. He took his spot next to Lincoln as the ceremony began with a prayer and a selection from the Marine Corps Band. Being the main attraction, Everett spoke first.
Everett’s speech that day is well worth a read and is readily available online. He recited it from memory, sometimes looking at his audience and sometimes at Lincoln. The only hiccup in the entire performance came when he accidentally said Lee when he meant Meade, but this was quickly corrected by Lincoln and the show went on. By the time Everett reached his conclusion he was thoroughly exhausted and spent from the ordeal. Applause rippled through the crowd and Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and others embraced Everett as he was escorted back to his seat wrapped in a blanket.
When all is said and done, Everett’s Gettysburg Address was a model of 19th century oratory. It was eloquent and learned, with many allusions and references to Ancient Greece and European history. Most of these are lost on us today, but would perhaps have been more relevant to the audience which Everett was addressing. At two hours it was a long speech, but entirely in keeping with the expectations of the day. The critical reaction to his oration was mixed in much the same way that Lincoln’s address was received. Republican newspapers were laudatory, Democratic ones less so.
Everett’s long slide into obscurity began almost as soon as he finished talking. His speech was quickly overshadowed by the genius and brevity of Lincoln’s. Neither speaker on November 19th had long to live. Everett died in January of 1865 in Boston, just a few months before an assassin’s bullet claimed Lincoln. Lincoln’s fame grew following his death in almost the same proportion that Everett’s evaporated. Today, Lincoln is a household name. Everett is, at best, an answer on Jeopardy. Yet his Gettysburg oration was to be the crowning achievement of his life. It is the product of a man who spent the bulk of his adult years shaping the country he loved, and then trying to save that country from implosion. We can’t expect 8th graders to memorize his address, nor do I anticipate seeing swarms of Everett impersonators on Remembrance Day, be we can take a moment to read what he wrote, and what he hoped would inspire a country in the throes of a bloody Civil War.
Christopher Gwinn, Park Ranger