This article’s title has nothing to do with Knute Rockne’s memorable “Win one for the Gipper” speech.
“Four score and seven years ago….”
Unless you are one of Leno’s Jaywalking All- Stars, you know who spoke those words and the occasion at which they were uttered.
Anyone who has read the words to that speech would find it hard to believe that Abraham Lincoln was not the guest of honor at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery 150 years ago on November 19, 1863. That role went to Edward Everett, a man as respected as anyone in his time. A former Member of Congress, US Senator and statesman, he was well-known for his oratory skills. Lincoln was there to make concluding remarks.
If Lincoln had not been able to make it – he barely arrived the day before on a special train – we would remember the opening of the Gettysburg address as, “Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.”
In fact, Everett’s speech took two hours to deliver; it amounted to 13,607 words – even longer than a typical article written by my fellow Citywatch contributor, Bob Gelfand.
Although eloquent, much of Everett’s time was devoted to a summary of the deadly events leading up to the battle and a description of the action over the three bloody days in early July. Purely material better suited for a college history class than an outdoor gathering. I would imagine there were some in the audience who dozed off at times.
It was less than inspiring…..and the nation was in need of a heavy dose of inspiration. You see, the war was still in the balance. It was halftime.
Despite the strategic victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July, the vast interior of the South was still under Confederate control. Lincoln still had to worry about re-election the next year. If the war was still dragging on without an end in sight, a peace candidate could capture the White House and negotiate an armistice with the CSA.
What’s more, the Confederates scored an important victory at Chickamauga just two months before in September. The Union Army was driven back to Chattanooga in disarray. Only the lack of resolve by the Confederate commander, Braxton Bragg, and the dogged defense of General George Thomas (thereafter known as the Rock of Chickamauga) kept the fight from being a complete disaster for the northern army.
The very day Everett and Lincoln delivered their speeches, the Union Army was still bottled up in Chattanooga. General Grant, who had taken command of the besieged forces in the city, was still planning a counterattack against the heavily defended positions of the Confederates. There was absolutely no guarantee of success.
As it turned out, Grant was successful in a series of battles that began on November 23rd. He did to southerners what they did to the Union forces at Chickamauga. Bragg was forced to hurriedly retreat and only the heroic defense by his best division commander, General Patrick Cleburne, enabled the rebels to reassemble in Georgia. It was similar to what George Thomas had accomplished for the Union army in September.
I would like to think that the Union soldiers who stormed Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge in late November 1863 felt inspired to some degree by Lincoln’s words. Certainly General Grant’s reputation contributed to their confidence, but sometimes words can motivate, too. There were no media polls 150 years ago, so we will never know for sure if the soldiers digested Lincoln’s remarks then or thereafter in the final seventeen months of the conflict, which were among the bloodiest.
The text of both speeches were printed in all of the major newspapers within days. Republicans generally favored Lincoln’s and Democrats were impressed by Everett’s. Can you say partisanship?
This much we know: Edward Everett wrote Abraham Lincoln shortly after the dedication ceremonies, “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.”
To which Lincoln responded, “In our respective parts yesterday, you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one. I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little that I did say was not entirely a failure.”
Indeed, not a failure – then, now or in the future.