Only 272 words written 150 years ago


For some reason I now forget, I once memorized the speech. Not a major feat of memory since it is only 272 words in length, and the original writer read it in less than two minutes. Documented in news stories of the time, the speech was not even the main event of the day. Its purpose was the dedication of the cemetery for the enormous losses of the Gettysburg battle between the Union forces, the Army of the Potomac, under General George Meade, and the Confederate forces, the Army of Northern Virginia, under Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The battle had raged for three days, July 1-July 3 and when it ended with Lee’s withdrawal, there were some 50,000 casualties from both sides, with thousands buried in shallow, temporary graves or not at all. The evidence of carnage was horrific for months until a contract was finally issued to rebury the dead, many of whose shallow graves were being dug up by pigs and dogs, and the need to deal with more than 5,000 rotting carcasses of horses killed in the battle. The winning contractor was paid $1.59 for each reburial.

The main oration dedicating the cemetery came from the well-known pastor, orator, diplomat, teacher and politician Edward Everett, who spoke for some two hours according to press reports. Not many now know of Everett. Nov. 19 is remembered as the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address by the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, not the oratory of Edward Everett. I suspect that all of us know of the speech and quite possibly many of us have actually read it either by choice or assignment by a teacher or parent. It is a remarkable document, but Lincoln, who apparently wrote part of it in Washington, and part in Gettysburg, worried it would be insufficient.

Before the address he told a friend, “It is a flat failure. The people won’t like it.”

Interestingly, there was some consternation in Lincoln’s mind about the arrangements made by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for Lincoln’s journey to Gettysburg. Stanton arranged for Lincoln to travel on the day of the speech, leaving Washington at 6 a.m. on the Baltimore and Ohio, arriving in Gettysburg at noon (if all went well). Lincoln complained in a letter to Stanton, “I do not like this arrangement.” He chose to leave a day earlier to be certain he would arrive in time. If he had not left a day earlier, in all likelihood he would not have arrived in time to give the speech and the 272 words might have ended up as just a footnote somewhere.

Some years ago, visiting an antiquarian book store in Lancaster, Pa., I purchased the 12-volume set, “Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln,” edited by his two secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, and published in 1894. They point out that there were actually three versions of the Gettysburg Address, “all identical in thought, but differing slightly in expression.”

The original was written by Lincoln partly in Washington and partly in Gettysburg. The second version was that recorded in shorthand by a reporter on the stand and reprinted across the nation in many newspapers. The third version was a corrected revision made by Lincoln a few days later and it is this revision that is read today. The shorthand of the reporter recorded words not used by Lincoln.

What still moves me after so many years is the facsimile of the original Gettysburg Address, bound in Volume IX of the set I purchased, written in Lincoln’s own hand and signed and dated by him, Nov. 19, 1863. The opening sentence still makes one take a deep breath and it remains the basis of our nation:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Don Wolberg is an adjunct faculty member at New Mexico Tech, where he teaches a variety of courses in science, serves on several boards, consults in science and environmental policy, and now and then is involved in designing and building touring exhibits and museums.