Reflecting on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

November 28, 2013

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

By Gary Cameron

He arrived on the evening train from Washington, accompanied by two secretaries, three members of his Cabinet, and several foreign officials. During the train trip, he commented that he felt weak and dizzy. During the speech, it was noted that he face had ‘a ghastly color.’ After the speech, he boarded a train back to the nation’s capital and was feverish and had a bad headache. An extended illness continued, and the President appeared to be in the throes of smallpox when he delivered the Gettysburg Address at the Gettysburg National Cemetery dedication.

Throw in the fact that Abraham Lincoln, in November of 1863, was attempting to save and re-unite a nation in the middle of a Civil War, free a people who came to the U.S. shores in chains and committed to a life of servitude and bondage, dealing with the loss of his young son Willie in 1862, (of the three Lincoln children, only one survived in adulthood), and married to a woman who possessed incredible mood swings, a fierce temper, and depression.

If you look at an actual photograph of Abraham Lincoln in 1863 at age 54, the physical effects of the mental weight and strains he carried are quite evident. Deep set lines and creases, fatigue, and sadness cover his expression even with an attempt to look pleasant. The man easily looks fifteen years older than his actual age.

Only one confirmed photograph of Abraham Lincoln during ceremonies for the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863 exists. Taken by David Bachrach, the President is centered in a crowd, hatless, and by all accounts, Bachrach made the image after Lincoln’s “brief remarks” that only contained a few paragraphs and took two minutes to deliver. More than likely, Bachrach was expecting a speech similar to Edward Everett’s that preceded Lincoln’s, and lasted two hours.

Think of that. A two-minute speech, now 150 years later, and it is considered one of the greatest oratories delivered in U.S. history. Lincoln eloquently expressed a nation’s history, present-day fears, honored the dead buried just a month earlier around him, and gave hope for a nation’s future that appeared in such peril. In two minutes. While sick and possibly suffering from smallpox. If only present-day Washington, and those of us who have to listen, were so fortunate today.

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