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Richard W. Etulain

"Unfinished Business"

The background and afterlife of the Gettysburg Address.

At noon on November 18, 1863, Abraham Lincoln boarded a special presidential train running north. Ensconced in the plush presidential car of the B&O Railroad, Lincoln traveled to Baltimore, where he transferred to another rail station and headed west. With him were his half-finished comments to be given the next day in dedicating a new cemetery in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. By early morning Lincoln had completed the brief address of some 270 words, quickly wrote out another version, and gave the speech following a parade, Edward Everett's featured two-hour oration, and musical presentations.

The sprawling audience at Gettysburg seemed uncertain about how to respond to Lincoln's two-to-three-minute address. As many as 20,000 visitors had swarmed into the town, overwhelming its 2,500 residents. Applause interrupted Lincoln several times and followed his speech, but listeners appeared more taken with Everett's soaring oratory than with the president's brief, poetic reflections. Lincoln wondered if he had misspoken. The lack of attention paid his Gettysburg Address in leading American newspapers and the subdued responses of most who read the address seemed to confirm his reservations. But Everett's warm congratulatory note to Lincoln provided needed assurance. The orator told the president: "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."

Although pressed for time and unable to finish his address before leaving Washington, Lincoln gave considerable thought to appropriate words for the solemn occasion. Everett's being the featured speaker, Lincoln's own role as a last-minute add-on, and the need to dedicate the new burial ground for soldiers who lost their lives at Gettysburg the previous July predetermined much of the tone and content of Lincoln's comments. But he reflected extensively about what he would say: to honor the dead and to speak of the horrendous conflict ...

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