150 Years Ago This Week: The two-minute address at Gettysburg

November, 1863

Four Union divisions of Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s troops were at Bridgeport, on the Tennessee River on Sunday, Nov. 15, when Gen. Sherman went into Chattanooga to confer with Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant; he looked over the ground before moving his troops closer to the city.

In the east, at Charleston, the Federal bombardment of Fort Sumter slowed somewhat; 2,328 rounds had been fired at the crumbling fortress since Nov. 12. Two men were killed and five wounded. In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Federal cavalry conducted operations from Charles Town to Woodstock, New Market, Edinburg and Mount Jackson.

President Lincoln awaits his turn to speak at Gettysburg.Courtesy photo
President Lincoln awaits his turn to speak at Gettysburg.

Federal authorities in northern Mississippi and western Tennessee tightened prohibitions against trading with secessionists or war profiteers, and consorting with Confederate guerrilla bands. The Union occupation of this area had become a difficult problem, with a lot of covert non-compliance with rules and regulations.

On Nov. 16, Confederate troops under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet moved north of Chattanooga and headed to Knoxville, and in an engagement at Campbell’s Station, failed to cut off Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Union line of retreat. The Federal general withdrew his troops to Knoxville, and Gen. Longstreet’s troops encircled Knoxville and besieged it.

“What is the news,” were the familiar words in President Lincoln’s telegram to Gen. Burnside the following day; the Federal general responded that Gen. Longstreet had crossed the Tennessee with his troops and that Gen. Burnside had withdrawn his army to Knoxville.

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, a special train with four passenger cars left Washington; its destination was Gettysburg, Pa. Depressed because his son Tad was ill and Mrs. Lincoln was very upset, the president told a few humorous stories to Secretary of State William Seward, several other notables and the French ambassador to the U.S., enroute to the Pennsylvania town.

He spoke briefly to the gathered crowd outside the Wills House once the presidential party had arrived at Gettysburg. That evening he continued working on the remarks he would make the following day. Fighting took place this day near Germanna Ford in Virginia; at Carrion Crow Bayou in Louisiana; in Jasper County, Miss., and against U.S. gunboats and transports near Hog Point in Mississippi.

As part of a horseback procession on Nov. 19, Lincoln rode in a procession from the Wills House to the newly established military cemetery for those Union soldiers who fell during the Battle of Gettysburg. Edward Everett, a powerful political leader from Boston and former Secretary of State, gave a detailed and colorful two-hour speech about the battle, using information furnished to him by Maj. Gen. George Meade and other military commanders.

After him, President Lincoln stood and in his toneless, high-pitched voice, delivered a two-minute address of just 10 sentences, mentioning the business at hand: dedicating the new cemetery. Some in the audience appeared to be moved by the speech, others just respectful. Some newspapers commented favorably on the address, while others mentioned the speech almost in passing.

President Lincoln said later that he felt his two-minute address fell flat, and did not seem to excite the crowd. Feeling somewhat ill, Mr. Lincoln returned to Washington by train that night with his task complete. Today the only record of Mr. Everett’s two-hour speech can be found in contemporary newspapers while Mr. Lincoln’s two-minute address at Gettysburg will never be forgotten.

The week closed with yet another bombardment of Fort Sumter, in which 694 shells were fired and one man was wounded. Some 200 Union troops in small boats attempted to assault the fort, but were forced to withdraw after the Confederates observed them. From Richmond, President Davis wrote to his commanders in the Trans-Mississippi of his distress over the loss of a large part of Arkansas and asked what might be done to restore it.

Firing intensified at Charleston on Saturday, Nov. 20, with 1,344 rounds fired. Three soldiers died and 11 were wounded. President Davis asked Gen. Joseph Johnston for more help for Gen. Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga.

In Washington, President Lincoln received a note from orator Edward Everett, commenting on how near the President had come “to the central idea of the occasion” the day before at Gettysburg. “I assure you, sir, that you said more in two minutes than I spoke in two hours.” In response, Mr. Lincoln wrote, “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.”

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.