Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lincoln at Gettysburg: First Hand Accounts

 We have read and heard many times over of President Abraham Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 in the new National Soldiers Cemetery in the small town of Gettysburg. But many have not heard of the excitement that occurred the night before and the morning of the famous speech; of how the folks in town reacted and celebrated such an occasion as having a Presidential visit. Especially after the horror that took place just a few months before.
The following comes from the book, "Gettysburg Remembers President Lincoln: Eyewitness Accounts of November 1863" by Linda Giberson Black.

The train depot on Carlisle Street

At about dusk on Wednesday, November 18, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln's festively decorated train arrived at the railroad depot on Carlisle Street. From there he moved to the home of David Wills.
Gettysburg was a lively place that evening. Many of the visitors who thronged the streets were still seeking lodging. Military bands played patriotic music by torchlight, stirring the crowds. Numerous people openly enjoyed alcoholic refreshments. A large crowd gathered outside the Wills home.
"Thousands of persons were in the square anxious to see and hear the Chief Executive of the nation," Michael Colver wrote.
Many in the crowd began to call for Lincoln to come out and make a speech. At last, Lincoln decided that he could no longer ignore the pleas to appear. When he went to the window to wave, the crowd cheered. Not satisfied with this brief glimpse, the people continued to call for a speech. "When he did appear, never did mortal have a more enthusiastic greeting," J. Howard Wert noted.
"Hurrah for Old Abe!" shouted some as their hats were flung in the air. "We are coming Father Abraham," was the chorus of other enthusiasts. "God Bless our President! God save our President!"
Lincoln began to speak in the high-pitched voice that always carried so well to the audience.
"I appear before you fellow citizens merely to thank you for this compliment. The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech. I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons. The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make," he declared, drawing laughter. "In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things," he added.
"If you can help it!" someone in the crowd shouted.
"It very often happens that the only way to help it is to say nothing at all," the good-natured Lincoln replied, making the people laugh again. "Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further." And back he went into the Wills house.

The David Wills Home - Lincoln's stayed in the room marked with the bunting
 Many of the home owners in  Gettysburg had unexpected company that night due to the overwhelming throngs of out of towners clamoring to hear the President's speech. Kate McCreary said, "They slept on the floor of the parlor; had comforters and pillows for beds. The family slept on the third floor that night."

On the momentous Thursday morning morning of November 19, 1863, Gettysburg sprang to life early.  Much to the relief of everyone, the weather was good.
"It was one of those very few November days in our climate that are adapted for open-air audiences and open-air speakers," wrote eyewitness Henry Eyster Jacobs. "The sun shone brightly: the air was almost balmy."
Gettysburg was bursting at the seems. Visitors poured into town.. The local newspaper, The Compiler, noted: "The streets swarmed with people from all sections of the Union, the number variously estimated at from twenty to forty thousand. Every available spot on the principal streets was occupied. The throng of ladies and gentlemen, the large turnout of military in their best trim, the flags floating in the breeze at innumerable points - all contributed to the making up of a picture of rare and exciting interest."
W.C. Storrick walked to town with his father that morning: "The streets were rife with people. The bands were playing and I was delighted with the music which was the best I had ever heard."
At ten o'clock, the scheduled starting time for the procession, President Lincoln, wearing a black suit, stovepipe hat with mourning band, and white gauntlets, stood in the doorway of the Wills house.
Storrick remembered, "I was surprised and I might say awed by his great height, his black hair and beard, his dark complexion, his head covered with a tall silk hat. I thought he was the tallest man I had ever seen and I fancy I can still see him as he appeared to me on that day."
Lincoln was greeted by cheers as he walked between to lines of soldiers to the reddish-brown horse that had been selected to be his mount. However, the steed was too small for him. Henry Holloway recalled, "After he had mounted the animal, Mr. Lincoln's feet were near the ground. The spectacle was humorous, and no one seemed more conscious of it than himself. If there had been an accident, he certainly would not have had far to fall."
At about eleven o'clock, the procession to the Soldiers' National Cemetery was finally ready to start. "The band began to play and Mr. Lincoln's horse became excited and pranced around quite lively. It seemed to amuse the President, and then that sober, sad-faced man actually smiled," remembered Liberty Holloway.
The Shriver home on Baltimore Street as it looked in 1863

The proud color guard led the way down Baltimore Street. Next came the Marine Band, playing a stirring march. The rest of the military participants followed in their best attire, presenting an impressive sight.
Accompanied by numerous dignitaries such as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, and others, Lincoln appeared next in the procession. Despite the solemn purpose of the parade, many of the spectators who lined Baltimore Street greeted the President with cheers. Lincoln's face became illuminated with smiles and he bowed continually to acknowledge the cheers.
Annie Skelly was only seven at the time. "I remember vividly of a man who lifted me up to see Lincoln. He would turn from side to side looking at the people on either side when he passed. He looked rather odd on such a small horse."
This painting gives the reader a fine impression of what Gettysburg's Baltimore Street may have looked like on the morning of November 19, 1863

To the new cemetery Lincoln and the parade participants went, along with over twenty thousand cheering supporters, to hear what is perhaps the most famous speech given by a President in American history.
And the rest of the story, as cliched as it may be, is history.

I hope this little post helped to give you more of a 'you are there' understanding of what it was like during the evening of November 18 and the morning of November 19, 1863, for the population of the town of Gettysburg.



Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

Thank you for writing about the scenario leading up to Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address. What an interesting insight into the man, his thoughts, and the feelings of the townfolk awaiting his arrival.

I always loved learning about Lincoln, probably because I'm from Illinois. When I was 10, my girl scout troop took a trip to Springfield, and I was hooked on Lincoln from then on. At 12, I memorized the Gettysburg Address, and I still can recite it all these years later! Like all history, knowing the little behind-the-scenes details is always the most fun for me.


Historical Ken said...

Thanks Pam - it is the little, seemingly insignificant things that actually bring the past to life, isn't it?
We have our very own Lincoln up here - Fred Priebe - who does an amazing job in portraying our 16th President.

Richard Cottrell said...

I send you Best Thanksgiving Wishes from My Blog to Yours. Richard from My Old Historic House.