As we near the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the question of the president’s involvement in the dedication ceremony. Was he an afterthought to the event? In my years at Gettysburg I have repeatedly heard people claim authoritatively that he was. Several different interpretations are typically offered up as evidence to support this claim. One is that since the planners of the dedication ceremony first sought Edward Everett as the primary orator for the event that it meant they considered Lincoln secondary in importance and only included him as a formality. Another variation to this is that the planners forgot about the president which accounts for why he was invited so late in the planning. A third reason is that the planners were afraid Lincoln might say something embarrassing at the ceremony – there was that story of Lincoln cracking jokes as he rode through the Antietam battlefield – and sought to minimize his role. There are more but these are the most common I have heard. How do they hold up against the historical evidence we have available?
The first thing to consider it that there was not a great deal of time between when the ground was purchased on Cemetery Hill to establish a Soldiers’ Cemetery, and when it was dedicated. David Wills, the Gettysburg attorney who acted as the agent of Pennsylvania in
acquiring the property, and who planned the dedication ceremony efforts, did not complete purchase of the property until mid-August 1863. At the end of that month Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin wrote Wills, “the proper consecration of the grounds must claim our early attention.” In that era a “proper consecration” included a formal oration. The first order of business in Wills planning of the event then, was to secure an orator. Besides having an impressive professional resume Edward Everett had been a public speaker of national reputation for forty years so it is unsurprising that he was the choice of Wills and the governors of the Northern states represented at Gettysburg. An invitation was sent to Everett on September 23 inviting him to give the oration at the dedication which was then planned for October 23. So great was the desire for Everett be the orator that when he replied on September 26 he would be unable to “make the requisite preparation” by October 23, and that he could not be ready any earlier than November 19, Wills changed the date of the dedication. Wills had Everett but now it was the end of September, only about six weeks from the date of the dedication.
The selection of Everett and not Lincoln as the orator sometimes surprises modern visitors and has likely helped contribute to the idea that the president was an afterthought. Most people today have never heard of Everett while Lincoln is a giant, and today a national event that includes the president nearly always features him as the keynote speaker. But things were different in 1863. The president rarely traveled outside Washington unless it was on important business related to the war. Travel, even by train, was slow and could be uncertain. And, presidents were not expected to deliver orations, orators were. Contrary to another myth about Lincoln – that he was not a good speaker – everyone in that era knew of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Cooper Union speech which had propelled Lincoln to national prominence. But he was asked to participate in the ceremonies as the nation’s chief executive, not as the orator.
Also contributing to the idea that Lincoln was an afterthought was Wills did not formally invite him to participate in the ceremonies until November 2. Surely, if Wills and the planners had wanted the president to attend they would have contacted him earlier. But Lincoln was contacted earlier, however the invitation was verbal not written. Gabor Boritt, author of The Gettysburg Gospel, is certain that it was Governor Andrew Curtin who invited Lincoln sometime in early October, soon after Wills received confirmation of Everett’s participation in the ceremonies. Whether it was Curtin or someone else, by mid-October Gettysburg newspapers and the Philadelphia Inquirer carried news that Lincoln would participate in the program. [Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2006), 38, 307.]
Why it took Wills until November 2 to send a formal invitation to Lincoln is unknown, but a possibility is Wills waited until he had all the pieces of the ceremony in place before he defined the role the president would play. For example, Wills invited poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier and George Henry Boker to participate in the ceremonies and all declined for one reason or another.
A careful reading of Wills invitation to Lincoln should dispel any lingering notion that the president was an afterthought to the November 19 dedication. Wrote Wills: “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.”
The idea that Lincoln was an afterthought is one of those myths that often grow up around great events and famous people. David Wills understood what Edward Everett so wonderfully summarized about the dedication ceremonies; “The occasion is one of great importance, not to be dismissed with a few sentimental or patriotic commonplaces.” Far from an afterthought, as Wills makes clear in his letter to Lincoln, the president’s participation on November 19 was crucial to the nation and the soldiers fighting to preserve it.
D. Scott Hartwig