In a rare image of President Lincoln at Gettysburg, he is shown hatless at the center of a crowd on the orators’ platform. (Library of Congress)
In the summer of 1863, General Robert E. Lee pushed northward into Pennsylvania. The Union army met him at Gettysburg, and from July 1 to July 3, the bloodiest battle of the war ensued. By the time it was over, the Confederates were in retreat, and the battlefield was strewn with more than 50,000 dead and wounded.
Four months later, thousands gathered at Gettysburg to witness the dedication of a new cemetery. On the program was the standard assortment of music, remarks, and prayers. But what transpired that day was more extraordinary than anyone could have anticipated. In “The Words That Remade America,” the historian and journalist Garry Wills reconstructed the events leading up to the occasion, debunking the myth that President Lincoln wrote his remarks at the last minute, and carefully unpacking Lincoln’s language to show how—in just 272 words—he subtly cast the nation’s understanding of the Constitution in new, egalitarian terms. Wills’s book Lincoln at Gettysburg, from which the essay was adapted, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.—Sage Stossel
IN THE AFTERMATH of the Battle of Gettysburg, both sides, leaving fifty thousand dead or wounded or missing behind them, had reason to maintain a large pattern of pretense—Lee pretending that he was not taking back to the South a broken cause, Meade that he would not let the broken pieces fall through his fingers. It would have been hard to predict that Gettysburg, out of all this muddle, these missed chances, all the senseless deaths, would become a symbol of national purpose, pride, and ideals. Abraham Lincoln transformed the ugly reality into something rich and strange—and he did it with 272 words. The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration.
The residents of Gettysburg had little reason to be satisfied with the war machine that had churned up their lives. General George Gordon Meade may have pursued General Robert E. Lee in slow motion, but he wired headquarters that “I cannot delay to pick up the debris of the battlefield.” That debris was mainly a matter of rotting horseflesh and manflesh—thousands of fermenting bodies, with gas-distended bellies, deliquescing in the July heat. For hygienic reasons, the five thousand horses and mules had to be consumed by fire, trading the smell of decaying flesh for that of burning flesh. Human bodies were scattered over, or (barely) under, the ground. Suffocating teams of Union soldiers, Confederate prisoners, and dragooned civilians slid the bodies beneath a minimal covering as fast as possible—crudely posting the names of the Union dead with sketchy information on boards, not stopping to figure out what units the Confederate bodies had belonged to. It was work to be done hugger-mugger or not at all, fighting clustered bluebottle flies black on the earth, shoveling and retching by turns.