Lincoln at Gettysburg

Commentary, November 1992.


Garry Wills has a lot of interesting things to say about the Gettysburg Address, and especially about the occasion on which it was delivered. We learn, for example, that far from arriving at the last minute, as popular mythology has it, Lincoln anticipated the difficulties of reaching Gettysburg at a time when the railroad facilities were certain to be overtaxed and, against the advice of the men in charge of his schedule, set out from Washington a day in advance. Wills also puts to rest the story that Lincoln composed his address on the back of an envelope during the 80-mile train trip to Gettysburg.

The President could have been excused had he done so, however, because according to the official program he was expected to deliver only a few “Dedicatory Remarks.” The real Gettysburg Address—the “Oration”—was to be delivered by Edward Everett, the most famous orator of the time. (As was his custom, Everett committed his two-hour speech to memory.) In the event, Lincoln said what he had to say in 272 words and in one-fourth the time consumed by the Reverend T.H. Stockton, D.D., who delivered the opening prayer.