On the afternoon of November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech that would go down as one of the most famous in American history. Four and a half months after the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg — the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War — Lincoln took to the podium to address an audience of about 15,000 people at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery (now Gettysburg National Cemetery) in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
In his speech, Lincoln played down, or was unaware of, the significance of his words. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” he said, “but it can never forget what they did here.” The latter part was certainly true, as the roughly 50,000 casualties and many more veterans of the battle have long been honored and remembered. But Lincoln was wrong about the lasting impact of his speech.
The address included many lines that rank among the best-known remarks in American history, such as “four score and seven years ago” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It has also been referenced in other important documents and addresses, including France’s Constitution and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Despite being one of the most celebrated speeches in United States history, there are still some aspects of the Gettysburg Address that are not so well remembered, including its surprising brevity and the ongoing debate as to where, exactly, it took place.
The Gettysburg Address was surprisingly short
Lincoln spoke for about two minutes, and the entire speech was under 280 words. The precise number of words spoken on the day is subject to some debate, as five known manuscript copies exist. The Nicolay copy is believed to be the earliest version, but there is disagreement as to whether it was the actual reading copy used by Lincoln on November 19. The Bliss copy, written after the event, is often taken as the standard text, as it is the only copy signed by Lincoln himself.
It’s doubtful that Lincoln wrote the speech on the train to Gettysburg
According to popular myth, Lincoln wrote his address on the back of an envelope during his train ride from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg. This is highly unlikely, however. Some Lincoln experts believe the President was at least thinking about the speech shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, and probably began writing it at least a few days before November 19. One copy was partially written on official White House stationery, suggesting he began drafting the speech before leaving home. It’s also hard to imagine that Lincoln wrote the speech on a bumpy train ride that would not have been conducive to his characteristically neat handwriting, as displayed in the earliest copies of the address.
Lincoln wasn’t the main speaker that day
Edward Everett, an American statesman and acclaimed orator, was the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony, with Lincoln scheduled to make only a few remarks. Everett spoke for two hours, but few people are familiar with his speech today. Everett sent a letter to Lincoln the following day, expressing his admiration for the President’s concise address. He wrote, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Lincoln’s private secretary got drunk the night before the address
John Hay, one of Lincoln’s closest White House aides (and later U.S. secretary of state), was among a group of politicians and journalists who drank one too many whiskeys the night before the Gettysburg Address. He awoke with a shocking hangover, but managed to get through the day quite admirably.
Lincoln might have had smallpox when he gave his speech
While John Hay was coping with a hangover, Lincoln was feeling less than perfect himself. During the train ride to Gettysburg, Lincoln told one of his aides that he felt weak. Hay also noted that Lincoln’s face had “a ghastly color” during the speech and that the President was “sad, mournful, almost haggard.” Later that day, Lincoln was feverish and weak and was later diagnosed with smallpox, though he recovered from the life-threatening disease.
The town of Gettysburg wasn’t big enough for the occasion
Gettysburg had a population of just 2,500 people. So when a crowd of 15,000 descended upon the town in the days prior to the event, accommodations soon became crowded. Visitors had to double-up and triple-up in the available beds, and even the governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin, had to share. Only Edward Everett and the President were given their own beds.
We don’t know exactly where the Gettysburg Address took place
While the speech obviously took place in Gettysburg, we don’t know exactly where the podium stood. This has generated much debate among historians. Today, at the entrance to the National Cemetery, a marker states that the address took place “nearby.” Many now believe that the address was held inside Evergreen Cemetery, next door to the National Cemetery. The fact that only one confirmed photograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg exists has not helped to identify the precise location.
Not everyone enjoyed Lincoln’s speech
Although it’s one of the most famous speeches in American history, not everyone enjoyed the Gettysburg Address at the time. Reactions were naturally divided along partisan lines. The Chicago Times, a Democrat-leaning paper, didn’t hold back with its criticism, writing, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Abroad, meanwhile, the Times of London blasted the President, claiming “the ceremony was rendered ludicrous by some of the luckless sallies of that poor President Lincoln.” It’s safe to say, in retrospect, that these reports missed the mark by a quite historic margin.
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