Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America
One of the questions often encountered by a Civil War historian is, “Why did the North fight?” Southern motives seem easier to understand. Southern states seceded because they perceived Lincoln’s election in 1860 as a threat to their social order. Confederates fought to defend their independence, their institutions (mainly slavery), their way of life, from the annihilation they feared would result from defeat. But why did Yankees fight? Why did they persist through four years of the bloodiest conflict in American history, which cost 360,000 Northern lives and, as a proportion of national wealth, the equivalent today of $3 trillion? Puzzling over the same question in 1863, the Confederate War Department clerk John Jones wrote in his diary:
Our men must prevail in combat, or lose their property, country, freedom, everything…. On the other hand, the enemy, in yielding the contest, may retire into their own country, and possess everything they enjoyed before the war began.1
To resolve the mystery of why the North fought, the inquirer can do no better than to read carefully Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The answer is there, in this classic prose poem of 272 words that can be read aloud in two minutes. Many Americans have committed it to memory during their school days. But like the Apostles’ Creed, recited in unison every Sunday morning by millions of Christians, the Gettysburg Address is more often iterated than understood. Whole libraries of theology undergird the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed; generations of American political philosophy and experience lay behind the Gettysburg Address. A rich mythology has grown up around this mythic moment in American history; shelves of serious monographs, many of them devoted to puncturing the myths, have also proliferated on every aspect of the Gettysburg Address, from the question of where Lincoln stood when he delivered it to the deepest meaning of each phrase. Of all these studies, Garry Wills’s Lincoln at Gettysburg is the best as well as the newest. In precision and economy of language it emulates Lincoln’s masterpiece.
Wills dispels some of the curiously persistent myths about the occasion. The invitation to Lincoln to speak at the ceremony dedicating this first cemetery for Union war dead was not an insulting afterthought; Lincoln did not write his speech on the back of an envelope during the train ride to Gettysburg; Edward Everett’s two-hour oration did not leave the crowd so bored and restless that it paid no attention to Lincoln; Lincoln’s tenor speaking voice had great carrying power, and he could be heard clearly by the 15,000 people in the audience; the speech did not fall flat on the ears and minds of contemporaries, only to be revived and appreciated by later generations.
But all of these matters form the prologue to Wills’s thematic chapters, which trace the roots and analyze the meaning of both form and substance of the Gettysburg…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.