All of our roads lead to Gettysburg. Tragedy and eloquence draw us back to that special place, that crossroads town, and much of what it means to be an American seems to intersect there. We are drawn back by the distant call of trumpets and by the echoes of noble purpose. It is where our greatest gods of war clashed for three days and decided the nation's fate; it is where our most revered president set forth both the promise and the hope of the nation's future. Gettysburg is by any measure America's most hallowed ground.

But while we are repeatedly drawn back to those broad fields and rolling hills and to the story they have to tell, and no matter how often we may try to satisfy our longing to understand the meaning of Gettysburg, we are left mostly listening to those distant trumpets and far-off echoes, and we are never quite sure why we should feel an almost spiritual attachment to the bloody battle that was fought there and to the rather spare words that were spoken there.

One reason for that spiritual attachment is obvious. The fierce fighting that occurred at Gettysburg for three days in July 1863, when the Union Army of the Potomac collided with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, resulted in more than fifty-one thousand casualties. The soldiers who died there gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives, the "last full measure of devotion" as Lincoln aptly called it, and it is difficult not to see that act of sacrifice as something precious, something holy, something grandly divine. Thousands of lives were lost on every battlefield in that great and terrible war, and yet Gettysburg resonates with the deepest spiritual connections, hearkening the soul back to the bowers, forging a tangible link with the past that can, for many people, be felt and not just seen. Gettysburg, wrote Bruce Catton, "was, and is, preeminently the great American symbol, and it is not to be touched lightly. It has overtones." [1] Page  [End Page 73]

Overtones, indeed. Some of those overtones, the blaring ones that sound like the horns of archangels and that compel us to think of Gettysburg as sacred soil, come from the solemn words that Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. If it is any wonder that we think of Gettysburg in a spiritual way, it should not be, because it was Lincoln himself who set such thinking in motion. It is fairly commonplace for scholars to point out that the words and phrases Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address tend, to a great extent, to be religiously charged. One recent historian has even suggested that it was "divine help" that told Lincoln "how to communicate to the people assembling at Gettysburg." [2]

Whether or not such a thunderclap of heavenly intervention can ever be proved or even safely assumed, numerous scholars have, nevertheless, noted the plentiful passages in Lincoln's address that seem to have been borrowed from the Scriptures. Even though Lincoln said that it was beyond our poor power to consecrate the ground of Gettysburg, that is precisely what his speech achieved. Emory M. Thomas has ruefully observed that the "sacred acres" of Gettysburg "have endured an absolutely harrowing degree of hallowing."[3] If we take a closer look at the Gettysburg Address, if we follow the roads that lead us back to Lincoln's supreme moment, we may begin to see that some of the blame for Gettysburg's spiritual aura belongs to Abraham Lincoln and the words he chose for his immortal speech.

To begin, there is the famous opening phrase of the address, "Fourscore and seven years ago," a fairly ornate method of rendering a particular historical date that Lincoln could have picked up anywhere, but that must have come from his ready command of the Bible and from chapter and verse, in this case from the "threescore years and ten" and the "fourscore years" found in Psalms 90:10. Lincoln's reference to "our fathers" in the first sentence is mindful of the Lord's Prayer. It is also possible that behind Lincoln's clarion call for a "new birth of freedom" was the idea of rebirth set forth in John 3:3–7.

Apart from those specific citations, however, it is difficult to pin down the sources of Lincoln's biblical language in the Gettysburg Address. In his best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning study Lincoln Page  [End Page 74] at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills states that the most frequent "scriptural echoes" in the speech are from the Gospel of Luke. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., argues that Lincoln relied heavily on the style and repetition of the Book of Common Prayer for his couplings of "so conceived and so dedicated," "fitting and proper," and "little note and long remember." The speech, says Kunhardt, also "flared with sounds and images from the Scriptures." A thoroughly provocative thesis, propounded by William J. Wolf in 1959, maintains that the central image of the Gettysburg Address is the Christian sacrament of baptism. "Lincoln," says Wolf, "conflates the themes of the life of man in birth, baptismal dedication, and spiritual rebirth with the experience of the nation in its eighty-seven years of history."[4] Wolf may certainly be stretching things a bit, but the point is that Lincoln's speech did have a distinctive "biblical ring." Commentators have variously likened it to a hymn, a prayer, or a benediction.[5]

But there are other, more subtle, reasons why Americans regard Gettysburg as hallowed ground and Lincoln's address as sacred text. It is not only Lincoln's spiritual vocabulary that ties us to Gettysburg with a mystic chord, as Lincoln himself might have called it. There is also something beneath the surface, something emotional and sensational. Magic happened at Gettysburg, but we have long since lost sight of it. Lincoln predicted that the world would not remember what was said over the graves at Gettysburg, and although he was wrong because his words have become immortal, he was correct if he also meant that the full impact of his words would fade over time, like colors that grow dull and dark on an ancient painting.

Historians are not quite sure what actually took place at Gettysburg, and the fact is that we may never know for certain the details of that day. We are left with a multitude of conflicting evidence and eyewitness testimony. Some people swore that Lincoln wrote his remarks on a scrap of paper while riding the train to Gettysburg; others, on the same train, swore that he wrote nothing at all during Page  [End Page 75] the entire journey. Some said, too, that Lincoln spoke his words from memory, never once glancing at the sheets of paper he held in his left hand (or was it his right?). Other observers remarked how Lincoln carefully read his text, word for word, from the sheets of paper he held in his right hand (or was it both hands?).[6]

It should come as no surprise that this pivotal event in American history, this great and shining moment in Lincoln's presidency, is clouded in contradictory testimony and murky mythology. In our own lifetime, we have come to see, in the case of President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, how unreliable and conflicting the memories of witnesses can be. In the place of facts, myths are readily substituted; or, worse, the stuff of legend is interwoven with the truth in so tight a fabric that one thread cannot be distinguished from the other. So, too, with the Gettysburg Address. We know far less than we ought to know about it. And we know far less than we would surely like to know. Sorting it all out strand by strand is almost impossible.

But not entirely impossible. If we are to recapture the magic of the Gettysburg Address, we must try to reconstruct the event itself and get a picture of the moment that can take us beyond the few famous but very fuzzy photographs that were snapped on Cemetery Page  [End Page 76] Hill that November day. There is, luckily, enough evidence to give us a pretty good idea of what the scene was like.

By all accounts, the crowds were enormous. People had come from far and wide to attend the dedication ceremonies; for many, it was a journey they would never forget. Streets leading into Gettysburg were clogged to capacity, a newspaper reporter wrote, "by citizens from every quarter thronging into the village in every kind of vehicle—old Pennsylvania wagons, spring wagons, carts, family carriages, buggies, and more fashionable modern vehicles, all crowded with citizens—kept pouring into the town in one continual string." The armies had long since left Gettysburg, but now the town was overwhelmed by a new "invading host" who came by wagon, by train, by horse, and by foot to witness history in the making.[7]

On the night before the dedication of the cemetery, the crowd took over the town and turned it into something resembling a fairgrounds. Along the streets, torches lit the way for the surging mass of people who jammed the avenues and the taverns, the hotels, and the boardinghouses. The noise in the street was almost deafening. Bands played, people sang, and rowdies shouted.[8] There was an odd festive air, an air for wild rovers, in Gettysburg that night—not the kind of atmosphere one would associate with the solemn occasion of a cemetery dedication. Men were drinking, and some men were getting drunk. Even John Hay and John Nicolay, Lincoln's private secretaries, imbibed a few glasses of whiskey and sang a few songs. Nicolay, said Hay in his diary, "sung his little song of the 'Three Thieves,' and then we sung 'John Brown.' " [9]

Hoping to see Lincoln, the crowd serenaded him that evening at the home of David Wills, where the president was spending the night, and called for him to come out. Lincoln made an appearance, stood in the doorway for a few minutes, and then quietly slipped back inside. Later a larger crowd gathered and made a terrible racket, calling for the president from beneath a window at the Wills house. A military band played a few songs. A group of young women sang "We Are Coming Father Abraham, Three Hundred Thousand More." A male quartet also serenaded. When Lincoln reappeared, the crowd asked him to say a few words, something he did not like doing without a prepared text. But he did make a few extemporaneous remarks. Lincoln retreated quickly, however, and the crowd moved Page  [End Page 77] next door and found William Seward, the secretary of state, who was more than willing to deliver a speech. Lincoln spent the rest of the night writing and briefly conferring with Seward. Around midnight, Lincoln went to bed, but it is hard to imagine anyone getting much sleep that night, given the high spirits and loud revelries of the merry multitudes.[10]

Lincoln at Gettysburg by John Fletcher
Lincoln at Gettysburg by John Fletcher Ransom

With the daylight it was easier to guess the size of the crowd. Some observers thought that there were as many as twenty thousand people in town, although a more reasonable estimate places the size of the crowd at about fifteen thousand. When the president emerged from the Wills house to join the procession of dignitaries marching to the cemetery, the crowd responded enthusiastically. Lincoln was greeted with "three hearty cheers," and clumps of people surged toward him, arms outstretched wanting to shake his hand or touch him. At first the mass of people behaved in an orderly fashion, but shortly things got out of control, and people began jostling Lincoln back and forth and cramming in all around him. Finally Ward Hill Lamon, marshal-in-chief of the day's events and Lincoln's unofficial Page  [End Page 78] bodyguard, ordered the crowd to move back. The people slowly retreated, but not before issuing a few more cheers for "Father Abraham" and "honest Old Abe."[11]

It was a perfect day for the ceremony. "The sky was cloudless," remembered a Gettysburg resident, "and the sun shone out in glorious splendor."[12] The procession soon arrived, flowing up Cemetery Hill to the marching tunes of four military bands, and all but one of the honored guests were escorted to their seats on the platform. The program was delayed for half an hour as everyone waited for the principal speaker, Edward Everett, to arrive and take his place on the platform. After he was seated, a little before noon, the proceedings began, and the crowd watched in awe and wonder as the ceremony unfolded—a grand ceremony, the likes of which few had ever seen. Those who witnessed what took place that day at Gettysburg would never forget it. As one observer noted years later," We had heard very much more that day than we dreamed of."[13]

The crowd was ready for something momentous to occur, and they did not have to wait long. After a dirge was played by Birgfield's Band of Philadelphia, the Reverend T. H. Stockton, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, offered a prayer, a soulful entreaty for the nation to remember that "in the freshness of their young and manly life, with such sweet memories of father and mother, brother and sister, wife and children, maiden and friends, they died for us." His words struck a deep chord. The New York Times reported that Stockton's invocation, which concluded with the Lord's Prayer, "was touching and beautiful," and the Philadelphia Press remarked that "there was scarcely a dry eye in all that vast assemblage." Lincoln was among those noticeably moved, and his "falling tear" was seen as proof of the "sincerity of his emotions."[14]

After a reading of the lengthy regrets of important people who could not attend, the U.S. Marine Band played an appropriate musical selection. Finally, Edward Everett, the nation's most famous orator, was introduced. His address, which lasted nearly two hours, soared in rhetorical flourish as he reviewed the history of the Battle of Gettysburg within the context of the great battles of the ages. The crowd was enraptured and distracted by turns. Everett was a master speaker and knew precisely how to hold an audience, but Page  [End Page 79] his emotional appeal may have discomforted his listeners. The audience, in fact, began to dwindle, some people wandering away from the immediate area of the platform toward the unfinished gravesites or the slopes of the hillside and the crest of the ridge where the deadly fighting had taken place four months earlier. At last Everett finished his speech, and as he did the strollers drifted back to the platform and waited for the next installment of the program.[15]

A poem composed for the occasion was sung as a hymn by the Baltimore Glee Club. Then Ward Lamon walked to the center of the platform and proudly introduced his friend, "The President of the United States."

Precisely what occurred during the next two or three minutes cannot be known. It is certain that Lincoln delivered his brief remarks, or at least a version of what we today know as the Gettysburg Address, but beyond that only the grayness of history seems apparent. As John Hay rather matter-of-factly recorded in his diary, "The President, in a fine, free way, with more grace than is his wont, said his half dozen words of consecration, and the music wailed, and we went home through crowded and cheering streets. And all the particulars are in the daily papers."[16]

We do know that there was more to the Gettysburg Address than that. If indeed there was magic that did take place, a spiritual connection that touched the soul of America, then presumably we should be able to account for it in the reactions of the thousands of people who heard him speak that afternoon. The crowd assembled at Gettysburg had played a major role in the events of this dedication; the crowd's reaction, therefore, should tell us what we need to know about the speech's impact and its significance.

Yet the surviving evidence concerning the audience's response is frustratingly—and rather amazingly—in conflict with itself. It is amazingly so only because the testimony of witnesses seems to suggest that the crowd reacted in contradictory ways at once: both enthusiastically and stoically, with great emotion and with great silence. Some observers said that the crowd ardently received Lincoln's words, even to the point of interrupting the address with applause. Benjamin B. French, who wrote the hymn that the glee club had sung that day, claimed that Lincoln's "every word at Gettysburg" had been met by a "hurricane of applause." Someone else remembered that when the president had finished, the crowd lustily Page  [End Page 80] gave him three cheers and offered three more for the governors of the states. Joseph L. Gilbert, the Associated Press correspondent who transcribed Lincoln's words verbatim, included in brackets the five places where the crowd interrupted Lincoln with applause, although many years later Gilbert acknowledged that he had arbitrarily inserted the references to the outbursts of applause and that he actually could not remember hearing any hand-clapping at all. Other witnesses, however, were absolutely sure that no applause occurred. W. H. Cunningham, a reporter, maintained that there was perfect silence during and after the speech. He was confident the audience had uttered "not a word, not a cheer, not a shout." [17]

But how could that be possible? How could some witnesses believe there was thunderous applause and others believe there was none? Historians have not helped to solve the contradiction. Generally, they tend to take sides, some favoring the idea of a silent crowd, others believing that the audience erupted in deafening applause. If we consider that both stunned silence and excited applause are acts that express emotion, we may begin to see them as vital clues about the impact of Lincoln's speech.

What the evidence really tells us is that the people who heard Lincoln's speech reacted very differently, but emotionally, to the president's words. Some people clapped wildly during the speech; others regarded the address as a solemn expression of sentiment and stood in silent awe of the man and his eloquence. The emotional response to Lincoln's address that took place was deep and varied. And it was, indeed, very emotional.

Already the day had been filled with emotion. The crowd was in high spirits. The bands played martial tunes. Reverend Stockton's soulful prayer had brought tears to many an eye. Edward Everett's speech had stirred patriotism and sadness, pride and sorrow. And now Lincoln, with a slight 272 words, had finally touched the deepest chord of all.

It went so deep, in fact, that it took many listeners completely by surprise. When Lincoln stopped talking (after fewer than three minutes), some members of the audience were not quite sure he had finished, and, according to one eyewitness, "the awe-struck people, apparently deeply moved, gave no sign of approval or appreciation." Ward Lamon, whose account of the Gettysburg proceedings cannot be entirely trusted, later claimed that "the lack of hearty demonstrations of approval immediately afterward, were taken by Mr. Page  [End Page 81] Lincoln as certain proof that it was not well received," although it seems unlikely that Lincoln thought his speech as much a failure as Lamon maintained. [18] In any case, some people were so taken aback by Lincoln's words, either because of the brevity of his speech or the emotional power of what he had said, that they did not applaud and, in fact, did not respond in any outward manner. "It was a sad hour," recalled a Gettysburg man. "Any tumultuous wave of applause would have been out of place."[19]

But there were "roars of applause," as one observer described it, and there was great solemnity all at once. [20] Mostly, the crowd was overcome by a wave of emotion. Some responded with heartfelt silence; others, like church-goers who occasionally wish they could applaud a particularly fine choir performance or a touching sermon (but who restrain themselves and do not), permitted their instincts to control their actions this time and exploded into applause at intervals throughout the president's address.

Members of the audience were touched in a variety of ways. One Union officer was powerfully—and spiritually—moved by Lincoln's remarks. As the president spoke, the officer realized that they all stood "almost immediately over the place where I had lain and seen my comrades torn in fragments by the enemy's cannon-balls—think then, if you please, how these words fell on my ears." For this army officer, Lincoln's address brought forth a moment of pure epiphany: "If at that moment the Supreme Being had appeared to me with an offer to undo my past life, give back to me a sound body free from the remembrance even of sufferings past and those that must necessarily embitter all the years to come, I should have indignantly Page  [End Page 82] spurned the offer, such was the effect upon me of this immortal dedication." [21]

When the president told the crowd that the world could never forget what the soldiers of the North had accomplished at Gettysburg, an army captain sobbed openly and then, according to a reporter who saw him, "lifted his eyes to heaven and in low and solemn tones exclaimed 'God Almighty, bless Abraham Lincoln.'" Isaac Arnold—who was not present at Gettysburg but who gained his information from Governor William Dennison of Ohio, who was there—said that "before the first sentence was completed, a thrill of feeling, like an electric shock, pervaded the crowd."[22] Others who were not there agreed nonetheless that the words Lincoln had spoken were positively thrilling. As George William Curtis, editor of Harper's Weekly, put it, "The few words of the President were from the heart to the heart. They cannot be read, even, without kindling emotion." Horatio King, who heard Lincoln deliver the address, expressed it simply but passionately. "My God," he said, "it was so impressive!"[23]

Whatever these people had experienced, it was not easily put into words. Nor was it at all what they had anticipated. One modern commentator, Garry Wills, has compared the Gettysburg ceremony to the rituals used in the dedication of rural cemeteries such as Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831; while that comparison is useful and illustrative, it is not altogether satisfying.[24] What took place at Gettysburg—the thrumping bands, the rowdy crowd, the surprising and touching speech of the president, and the varied emotional reactions to it—was really quite different from the solemn and sedate proceedings of the rural cemetery movement. It is most unlikely, in fact, that an audience at the consecration of any rural cemetery in nineteenth-century America would have ballyhooed three cheers for the dedicatory speaker, as the crowd at Gettysburg did for Lincoln. If the Gettysburg dedication resembled anything at all, it was more like a camp meeting than a cemetery consecration. [25] Page  [End Page 83]

I do not mean to suggest that fire and brimstone defined the major elements of the Gettysburg ceremony. Lincoln was no Bible-beater, and Gettysburg was no Cane Ridge. Obviously the gyrations and hysteria of converted multitudes, which had given camp meetings a bad reputation among religious conservatives during the early decades of the nineteenth century, were not manifested by the audience at the Gettysburg dedication. But the emotional responses to Lincoln's address do seem to be strikingly similar to the reactions of revival worshipers, particularly those attending the outdoor meetings that, by the 1850s, had matured into carefully organized and orchestrated occasions for prayer, social exchanges, and festivity that downplayed the demonstration of bodily excitement. At the orderly camp meetings of the 1840s and 1850s, including the Methodist revivals in Lincoln's home state of Illinois, some attending souls would maintain a perfect decorum, whereas others might be moved to tears and supplications.[26] Occasionally passions might be heightened by the exhortations of an effective preacher, and "wild-fire songs, processions, blowing of trumpets ... and other imitations of military operations" would flare up out of the crowd. [27] But the point is that these camp meetings produced a range of emotional responses, some overt and some serene, some blatant and some hushed.

Lincoln himself was familiar with such camp meetings, which were a fixture of the frontier culture in which he had been raised. In New Salem, Illinois, where Lincoln resided in the 1830s, revival meetings were commonplace, although Lincoln belonged to a group of skeptics who preferred to read books by Thomas Paine and other enlightened thinkers rather than listen to the volcanic sermons of backwoods orators. [28] Page  [End Page 84]

Generally, Lincoln steered clear of such spiritual gatherings, and he never quite came to grips with the oblations and obligations of any organized religion or Christian denomination, but he did attend camp meetings from time to time, just as he went to church in his later years, on and off. [29] Francis Grierson, an essayist and professional pianist who spent his childhood in rural Illinois (and who knew from firsthand experience what camp meetings were all about), reported that Lincoln had attended at least one revival meeting as a young man. The meeting, said Grierson, had a profound effect on Lincoln, especially when the preacher described the coming inevitable destruction of slavery in a fiery war, and Lincoln, so the story goes, had a vision of himself as an instrument of that destruction.[30] The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it demonstrates, at the very least, Lincoln's occasional attendance at such meetings. The man was always searching for answers.

He did not find them at these frontier meetings, although he seems to have learned from their example some important lessons about using words for emotional effect. Like the preachers at revival meetings who often took on the role of prophets, stern Jeremiahs warning of God's unforgiving wrath, Lincoln could also at times seem like an Old Testament prophet—which was precisely how many people regarded his deportment at Gettysburg. One minister attending the Gettysburg ceremony remembered how Lincoln and his words seemed Page  [End Page 85] to cast a spell over the audience.[31] Isaac Arnold said that Lincoln's charisma mesmerized the crowd: "That mysterious influence called magnetism, which sometimes so affects a popular assembly, spread to every heart. The vast audience was instantly hushed, and hung upon his every word and syllable." A few years after the Gettysburg dedication, a national magazine declared that Lincoln's address "in the light of subsequent events sounds more like inspiration or prophecy ... than the utterance of mere human lips." [32]

Lincoln seemed like a prophet of old at Gettysburg because what he said possessed profound spiritual force. Simply put, Lincoln offered a new definition of old truths—a new perspective on old traditions—that unlocked deep American emotions, the mystic chords of memory that Lincoln referred to in his First Inaugural Address. As Garry Wills has shown, Lincoln achieved a revolution at Gettysburg by putting the central element of the Declaration of Independence—equality—in a new light as a fundamental principle of the Constitution, which does not mention equality at all. Lincoln had once declared, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." [33] At Gettysburg, his address looked back to those sentiments, which were "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," and then looked forward with hope that those sentiments, those old traditions, could be understood in a new light and could, through a rededication of the American people, produce "a new birth of freedom" in the nation that would be as dramatic and as transforming as the spiritual regeneration of a camp meeting or a great awakening. In this respect, then, Lincoln at Gettysburg resembled the stump preachers whose sermons urged that the old light be shunned and a new light embraced, that each soul find God's new light in the awakening of conversion. With the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was preaching his own great awakening. [34] Page  [End Page 86]

By 1863, at least two great awakenings had taken place during America's short history—one in the mid-eighteenth century and the other in the early decades of the nineteenth century—and although they were both marked by religious revivals and an outpouring of enthusiastic piety, historians and anthropologists are careful to point out that a great awakening is really more than just a flood of spiritual intensity. A great awakening, as William McLoughlin explains, is actually a time of stressful cultural transformation that results in a "profound reorientation in beliefs and values" and the tumultuous alteration of a culture's world view. Awakenings are the means by which society adjusts itself to new realities and redefines its norms to fit those realities. [35] They are moments when the world is turned upside down.

And so it was in America's worst cataclysm, the Civil War. The war had brought great change with it, and it was plain to see in the autumn of 1863 that the nation, whether divided or reunited, would never be the same. In his annual message to Congress in December 1862, Lincoln had said, "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." [36] A deep chasm already separated the old from the new.

Ultimately, what Lincoln envisioned was the need for the nation, even before the fighting was over, to renew itself and refashion its identity as a way of traversing that chasm. He had taken the first step toward that end in January 1863, when he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that reshaped the cause of preserving the Union into a crusade to make men free. But something else was still required to bridge the gap between the racial oppression of slavery and the promise of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence. The Gettysburg Address was that bridge. Lincoln's Page  [End Page 87] speech was a summons for the nation to embrace the principle of equality and, in the process, to transform itself into a new nation, a different America. In Lincoln's mind, such a change would require an act tantamount to spiritual regeneration, an evangelical renewal of what he had earlier called "the political religion of the nation." [37]

Commenting on Lincoln's compelling sense of purpose during the Civil War, Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America, wrote, "The Union with him, in sentiment, rose to the sublimity of a religious mysticism." [38] Stephens was not entirely wrong, but what he did not perceive—perhaps could not see at all—was that Lincoln's political religion, the source of his fervent mysticism, was founded not upon a simple and single-minded devotion to the cause of Union, but rather upon a matrix of interrelated propositions that became the objects of his pure faith—Union, liberty, democracy, and equality.[39]

The Gettysburg Address was Lincoln's supreme expression of that faith. And he used his carefully chosen words to inspire an awakening throughout the nation, a rebirth of old ideas, a plea for his fellow Americans to change their own hearts, just as the Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament calls upon the faithful to "make you a new heart and a new spirit." [40] There was, Lincoln said at Gettysburg, "unfinished work" and "a great task" remaining before the American people. Through all the applause and silence, cheers and tears, what his emotional audience could not know, and what he probably did not know himself, was that the work would remain Page  [End Page 88] unfinished for generations yet to come. Nor did he fully understand that his words would thrill the hearts and touch the souls of millions of Americans down through the years and that his address, by the force of his spiritual plea for the birth of a new America, would compel us forever more to think of Gettysburg as a sacred place. Page  [End Page 89]


  1. Bruce Catton, "Who Really Won at Gettysburg?" Saturday Review, June 15, 1957, 13. return to text
  2. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., A New Birth of Freedom: Lincoln at Gettysburg (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983), 24. return to text
  3. Emory M. Thomas, Travels to Hallowed Ground: A Historian's Journey to the American Civil War (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 3. return to text
  4. Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 78, 89, 185; Kunhardt, New Birth, 209; William J. Wolf, The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln (Garden City: Doubleday, 1959), 170. Another scholar has pointed out that "the similarities of language and style to the Bible" that are so evident in the Gettysburg Address do not "by themselves" prove anything "about the religious qualities of Lincoln's speech." See Glen E. Thurow, Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1976), 69. return to text
  5. Kunhardt, New Birth, 42, 216, 222; William E. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1930), 188. return to text
  6. On the controversies and conflicting evidence that have plagued the study of the Gettysburg Address, see, for example, Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, unpaginated foreword; David C. Mearns and Lloyd A. Dunlap, Long Remembered: Facsimiles of the Five Versions of the Gettysburg Address in the Handwriting of Abraham Lincoln (Washington: Library of Congress, 1963), unpaginated "Notes and Comments"; Louis A. Warren, Lincoln's Gettysburg Declaration: "A New Birth of Freedom" (Fort Wayne: Lincoln National Life Foundation, 1964), 119, 121–23. In 1925, Barton identified some of the stumbling blocks historians inevitably must encounter—and must try to reconcile—in reconstructing the history of the Gettysburg Address: "Lincoln made no preparation for the address, but trusted to the inspiration of the occasion; he made no preparation until he reached Gettysburg, and wrote the address the night before its delivery, or on the morning of its delivery; he wrote it on the train; he wrote it in full in Washington and took it with him; he wrote it in full in Washington and inadvertently left it there; he wrote it partly in Washington, partly on the train, partly the night before delivery, and revised it on the morning of the delivery. He delivered the address without notes; he held his notes in his left hand and read them in part and in part spoke without them; he held the manuscript firmly in both hands, and did not read from it, or read from it in part, or read from it word for word as it was therein written. The address was received without enthusiasm and left the audience cold and disappointed; it was received in a reverent silence too deep for applause; it was received with feeble and perfunctory applause at the end; it was received with applause in several places and followed by prolonged applause." William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925), 2:218. return to text
  7. Quoted in Frank L. Klement, "Ward H. Lamon and the Dedication of the Soldiers' Cemetery at Gettysburg," Civil War History 31 (Dec. 1985): 299. return to text
  8. Kunhardt, New Birth, 109; Warren, Lincoln's Gettysburg, 66–67. return to text
  9. Kunhardt, New Birth, 110. return to text
  10. Warren, Lincoln's Gettysburg, 66–67; Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 60–65. return to text
  11. Kunhardt, New Birth, 198–99; Klement, "Ward H. Lamon," 300. return to text
  12. Quoted in Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 180. On the weather conditions that day, see also Warren, Lincoln's Gettysburg, 75–76. return to text
  13. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 74–76, 182. return to text
  14. Ibid., 76; Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 4 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939), 2:467, 470; Warren, Lincoln's Gettysburg, 88–89. return to text
  15. Kunhardt, New Birth, 198–203; Warren, Lincoln's Gettysburg, 110. return to text
  16. Tyler Dennett, ed., Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1939), 121. return to text
  17. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 170, 191; Klement, "Ward H. Lamon," 305; Kunhardt, New Birth, 215. return to text
  18. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 188, 201. According to Lamon, Lincoln turned to him after finishing the Gettysburg Address and said, "Lamon, that speech won't scour. It is a flat failure and the people are disappointed." Lamon also claimed that Seward and Everett both expressed their opinions on the speakers' platform, but out of earshot of Lincoln, that the president's speech was a failure. Finally, Lamon said that Lincoln brought up the address after they had returned to Washington and remarked, "I tell you Hill, that speech fell on the audience like a wet blanket. I ought to have prepared it with more care." Most historians believe that Lamon fabricated the incidents. Evidence shows, in fact, that Everett marveled at Lincoln's words and later told him so in a note. The other attributions seem to be simply Lamon's prevarications or products of his overly active imagination. On Lamon's lack of credibility, see Frank L. Klement, "Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, and Two Myths," Blue and Gray Magazine, Oct.–Nov. 1984, 7–11. return to text
  19. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 183. Trying to recall the audience's reaction to Lincoln's speech, Professor Philip H. Bikle wrote: "I do not remember that there was any applause, but I do remember that there was surprise that his speech was so short" (ibid., 179). return to text
  20. Ibid., 167. return to text
  21. Ibid., 186. return to text
  22. Ibid., 165; Klement, "Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address, and Two Myths," 11. return to text
  23. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 118, 121, 167. The emotional appeal was also felt by an editorial writer for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, who noted: "The President's brief speech of dedication is most happily expressed. It is warm, earnest, unaffected, and touching. Thousands who would not read the long, elaborate oration of Mr. Everett will read the President's few words, and not many will do it without a moistening of the eye and a swelling of the heart" (ibid., 119). return to text
  24. Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 63–89. return to text
  25. Other historians have also been struck by the similarity between the Gettysburg Address and the sermons made at revival meetings. See, for instance, Oscar Handlin and Lilian Handlin, Abraham Lincoln and the Union (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 162. return to text
  26. On camp meetings, see Charles A. Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting: Religion's Harvest Time (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1955), 81–98; Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), 64–68, 123–24, 136–38; Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 429–45; Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., And They All Sang Hallelujah: Plain-Folk Camp-Meeting Religion, 1800–1845 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974), esp. 61–95. return to text
  27. Johnson, Frontier Camp Meeting, 93. return to text
  28. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1952), 25; Thomas, Lincoln's New Salem (New York: Knopf, 1954), 50–54; Douglas L. Wilson, "What Jefferson and Lincoln Read," Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 1991, 51–62. For camp meetings on the Illinois frontier, see also Helen Van Cleave Blankmeyer, The Sangamon Country (Springfield: Board of Education, 1935), 51–53; John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 156–70. return to text
  29. On Lincoln's religious beliefs and practices, see William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (New York: George H. Doran, 1920); Albert V. House, Jr., "The Genesis of the Lincoln Religious Controversy," Proceedings of the Middle States Association of History and Social Science Teachers 36 (1938): 44–54; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln's Herndon (New York: Knopf, 1948), 271–82; Ruth Painter Randall, "Lincoln's Faith Was Born of Anguish," New York Times Magazine, Feb. 7, 1954, 11, 26–27; Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War, rev. ed. (New York: Knopf, 1956), 151–53; Richard N. Current, The Lincoln Nobody Knows (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958), 51–75; Wolf, Almost Chosen People; Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 99–130; Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Religion of Abraham Lincoln," in Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address: Commemorative Papers, ed. Allan Nevins (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1964), 72–87; D. Elton Trueblood, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian of American Anguish (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); Andrew Delbanco, "To the Gettysburg Station," New Republic, Nov. 20, 1989, 31–38; Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 289–95. return to text
  30. Cited in Wilson, Patriotic Gore, 90. Grierson himself colorfully described an Illinois camp meeting of the late 1850s in his fictionalized memoir, The Valley of Shadows (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), 133–52. return to text
  31. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 176. return to text
  32. Ibid., 165; Warren, Lincoln's Gettysburg, 145. John Dos Passos observes that Lincoln "seemed like a minor prophet come back to life out of the Old Testament"; see Dos Passos, "Lincoln and His Almost Chosen People," in Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, ed. Nevins, 31. In Edmund Wilson's opinion, Lincoln had "his heroic role, in which he was eventually to seem to tower—a role that was political through his leadership of his party; soldierly through his rank as commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States; spiritual ... as the prophet of the cause of righteousness. And he seems to have known that he was born for this" (Patriotic Gore, 115). return to text
  33. Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 145; Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 133. return to text
  34. As to the importance of the Declaration of Independence, Wills remarks: "The Declaration of Independence [for Lincoln] has replaced the Gospel as an instrument of spiritual rebirth. The spirit, not the blood, is the idea of the Revolution, not its mere temporal battles and chronological outcome. The 'great task remaining' at the end of the Address is not something inferior to the great deeds of the fathers. It is the same work, always being done, and making all its champions the heroes of the nation's permanent ideal" (Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 88). return to text
  35. William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), esp. 1–23. On great awakenings, see also Anthony F. C. Wallace, "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist 58 (April 1956): 264–81; Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1968); Kenelm Burridge, New Heaven, New Earth (London: Oxford University Press, 1969). return to text
  36. Quoted in Don E. Fehrenbacher, ed., Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832–1865, 2 vols. (New York: Viking Press for Library of America, 1989), 2:415. return to text
  37. The phrase is from Lincoln's "Address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois," Jan. 27, 1838, in Fehrenbacher, ed., Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1:32. See also Glen W. Thurow, "Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion," in The Historian's Lincoln: Pseudohistory, Psychohistory, and History, ed. Gabor S. Boritt and Norman D. Forness (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 125–43. return to text
  38. Quoted in Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 125. For insights on Lincoln's "religious mysticism," see also Wilson, Patriotic Gore, 99–130, and Delbanco, "To the Gettysburg Station," 31–38. return to text
  39. On the main ingredients of Lincoln's political philosophy (or "political religion"), see, for example, Allan Nevins, "Introduction," in Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, 1–14; Thurow, Abraham Lincoln and American Political Religion, 63–87; Richard N. Current, "Lincoln, the Civil War, and the American Mission," in The Public and Private Lincoln: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Cullom Davis et al. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), 137–46; Stephen B. Oates, Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 7–17; James M. McPherson, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 113–30. return to text
  40. Ezek. 18:31. return to text