On November 19, 1863, approximately five months after the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln spoke before a crowd of about 15,000 during the dedication ceremony for the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg (Holloway 54). His address followed a two hours speech by the noted speaker Edward Everett. By contrast, Gettysburg Address took only two minutes to complete. While the crowd's response has been characterized as less than enthusiastic, there were a few who immediately recognized the importance of Lincoln's words. As Everett wrote in a letter to the President the day after the ceremony, "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in my two hours as you did in two minutes" (89). Lincoln's self-effacing reaction to this and other statements of praise indicate that he was wholly unaware of how important his speech would become.
Did this speech need to be made? Based on the firsthand account by William C. Storrick, the President appeared to be showing signs of having carried the weight of a great burden on his shoulders for some time (Holloway 56). While this interpretation of Storrick's account takes a few liberties based on what was known about Lincoln's health during the war (Evans 1433), there could be little doubt that Lincoln was suffering under the human and financial costs of prosecuting the American Civil War. As commander in chief, each death seemed to weigh on his soul. For example, Lincoln would often seek refuge from the pressures of his presidency in a cottage on the grounds of the Soldier's Home (Pinsker).
If Lincoln felt a deep empathy for those making sacrifices on the battlefield and at home, it seems likely that when requested to say a few words at the commemoration that he would have been torn between feeling a duty to recognize the sacrifices made as Commander in Chief and avoiding further reminders of the war's human toll. After all, Gettysburg was the burial ground of 3,500 Union soldiers and the location where a few months earlier 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had died ("Gettysburg National Cemetery"). His mood in Gettysburg when 8-year-old Storrick said good morning was likely one of deep sorrow and incalculable indebtedness to the soldiers and their families. This sentiment could be heard in the words "… we cannot hallow, this ground -- The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it & #8230;" (Lincoln).
Lincoln seemed to recognize that the country as a whole needed to momentarily shed the politics surrounding the war and focus instead on its human costs and the rationale behind these sacrifices. He did this by focusing on the basic human rights of liberty, equality, and self-governance (Lincoln) conferred to the American people by the Declaration of Independence, thereby giving the soldiers and their families a moral framework for grieving the dead and continuing the war effort. This point is made at both the beginning and end of the address.
It was David Willis of Gettysburg who invited the President to travel to Gettysburg and address the widows and orphans personally, in addition to the soldiers still in the field of battle, thereby providing a measure of comfort for those left living and still facing an uncertain future (Schwartz 65). Lincoln probably felt both a deep sadness and responsibility for his decision to begin the war, which would have been reinforced by traveling to the site of a great battle. The succinctness of the address, its lack of artifice, and the somber tone suggest that Lincoln had no stomach for politicizing what had occurred around Gettysburg the previous summer or sidestepping the responsibility he had assumed by taking the country to war. He accomplished what Willis had requested, by focusing on the meaning of the sacrifices made, the burdens already being carried by the grieving, and the moral justification for continuing the war.
The Impact of the Gettysburg Address
What impact this speech had on the soldiers in the field or the widows and orphans left behind is unknown. On the day of the speech, the crowd in attendance failed to applaud at first because it was so short (Holloway 89). According to Holloway, once the crowd realized that the speech was indeed over they responded heartily. However, aside from the exceedingly rare firsthand accounts of the speech, the impact it had on the everyday lives of regular Americans has been lost to time.
If an analysis of the speech's impact is limited to the press, there is no shortage of opinions. The newspapers of the time reacted in predicable ways, along political lines (Reid). Large Republican dailies, like the New York Commercial Advertiser, characterized the president's motives for giving the address as honoring the dead and motivating the Union to continue the war effort (58). By comparison, the Democratic-leaning Chicago Times characterized the opening line in the address as anti-American because it seemed to declare Negroes full citizens in contradiction to the Constitutional clause that slaves are only three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation. To bring this point painfully home, the Times review went further and accused the President of standing on the graves of soldiers who had died protecting the Constitution and mischaracterizing the reasons for their deaths.
Whether the newspaper accounts and editorials about the address reflect public sentiment will never be known, but these reviews probably influenced it to some extent. If the speech was intended to provide an acknowledgement of the sacrifices made and moral guidance going forward, then it succeeded from the Republican perspective. In other words, Republicans would have viewed the Gettysburg Address as consistent with their beliefs and an important definition of the war's purpose, while the Democrats would not. If the Gettysburg Address did have an impact at the time, there is little indication that it played a decisive role in how the war played out.
The address was criticized most severely by a faction of Northern Democrats called the Copperheads (Reid 59-60). The Copperheads were strongly opposed to Lincoln and his prosecution of the Civil War (Archaimbault and Barnhart). Instead, they wanted to establish peace with the South at any cost. Accordingly, Copperheads viewed both the Emancipation Proclamation and the opening line in the Gettysburg Address as a threat to peace. The motivation for wanting peace was primarily economic. After the Mississippi River was closed in 1861, which deprived the upper Midwest of Southern markets, banks were forced out of business and grain prices fell. The resulting recession was a source of discontent towards President Lincoln and his war policies.
Archaimbault and Barnhart discussed the state of politics in Illinois during the Civil War, which probably represents a good example of how divided the country was by region, county, and on an individual level (15-19). Slavery proponents lived side-by-side with abolitionist in an uneasy peace. Concentrations of each had formed as a result of the war, with each having its roots in either the South or New England, respectively. Pro-war sentiments were just as divided. Anti-conscription mobs would spring up and drive Army recruiters out of town, or react violently when the Army came through looking for deserters. The ideological divisions were influenced by the migration patterns of Southern Blacks and Whites into the upper Midwest and the incursion of New Englanders. For these reasons, it seems unlikely that the Gettysburg Address had any influence on the divisive political landscape of Northern states at the time.
Purpose of Address
If the Gettysburg Address had little impact on Northern politics, except to maybe fan the flames of anti-abolitionists with the opening words "… dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" (Lincoln), then what was the likely purpose of the speech? As discussed above, the speech was probably a direct response to Willis's request that the President speak to the soldiers still on the battlefield and the widows and orphans left behind, thereby giving recognition by the highest authorities to the sacrifices already made and to be made (Schwartz 64-65). The purpose of the speech was therefore to provide comfort to the grieving and those still facing an uncertain fate on the battlefield. The soldiers, widows, and orphans were his primary audience, not the politicians, newspaper editors, or Copperheads.
Dostoevski once said, "There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings" (as cited by Myers 269). What Willis requested from the President was something similar, to let the soldiers on the field and the widows and orphans left behind know that the President of the United States did not believe or feel that their sacrifices and suffering were for naught. To accomplish this, the President framed their sacrifices and suffering as inseparable from the struggle to protect a relatively new and novel government committed to liberty, equality, and self-rule. In essence, their sacrifices and suffering were equivalent to…