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Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: An Immortal Speech That Almost Didn’t Happen

This month, we celebrate a speech that was almost not given. We all know that Abraham Lincoln ventured to Gettysburg on the evening of November 18, 1863 to give “a few appropriate words” the following day, but his presence was fraught with difficulties and almost didn’t happen.

David Wills, Gettysburg attorney, and Pennsylvania Agent appointed by Governor Andrew Curtin, invited Lincoln to attend the ceremony and make a short presentation on November 14. His presence was not a foregone conclusion, as presidents rarely left Washington during that period. He had visited the Antietam battlefield the year before, but that was an exception to the rule.

Lincoln was mired in myriad tasks, including his annual message to Congress which was due on December 8 and a variety of other paperwork and proclamations. He met with the newly reelected governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin, who urged him to attend, and he probably agreed to do so the following day. Curtin was a strong ally and one the Lincoln could not afford to alienate, especially since his re-election campaign would soon kick off. 

But there were other, more important reasons for Lincoln to attend. The war was entering a new phase where the losses promised to be even more horrific, and Lincoln sought a platform to explain why the sacrifice was so important. It was also a way to honor the fallen and explain that their last full measure of devotion was not in vain.

Lincoln met with William Saunders, the designer of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on November 17, the day before he was to leave for Gettysburg, probably to gain some inspiration as he penned his remarks.

He was set to leave Washington on November 18, probably with the first page of his remarks already written, when his youngest son, Tad, came down with a mild form of smallpox, called Variola. He had already lost two sons, Edward, almost four years old, in 1850 and 11-year old Willie, who died the year before. Now, with Tad gravely ill, Mary Lincoln pleaded with her husband not to leave their son’s bedside. The pull to attend the ceremony was so strong that Lincoln put her objections aside and vowed to make the trip.

The trip was not an easy one, as the journey involved three separate railroad lines, and mechanical breakdowns and derailments because of wayward cows, was not unusual. But the trip went off without a hitch and Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg at about 6:00 p.m. on November 18. He quickly made his way to the Wills house, where he would spend the night. A telegram arrived a few hours later bringing the welcome news of his son’s condition improving, allowing Lincoln to breathe a sigh of relief.

The ceremony went off as scheduled the following day and we are now blessed with Lincoln’s seminal remarks…a speech that almost never happened.

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Dr. Brad Gottfried is the author of 16 Civil War books, including "Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg: The Creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address" (2021), which he co-wrote with his wife, Linda. He is also a Gettysburg Licensed Town Guide.

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