While doing some review about the history around the November 19, 1863, dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery, I re-read Edward Everett’s lengthy oration. One of the things I’ve always liked about his speech is that it’s Gettysburg specific; while President Lincoln’s speech is certainly more famous, that address could have been given at almost any battlefield or Civil War cemetery since it focused on more overarching themes that were on the president’s mind.
Along with Everett’s Gettysburg specific speech, he intentionally grounded the program to the location where he delivered it. Everett had given important speeches in prior years and he spent a lot of time research locations and historical events. In fact, the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery was actually delayed from October 23rd to November 19th to give him more time to finish his battle research and speech preparation.
This year I’ve been working on battlefield guiding skills, and one of the things that’s been emphasized to me is “set the location.” This is where a guide explains exactly where the group is standing before launching into the history of what happened. I might have started laughing when I read the opening line of Everett’s Gettysburg speech because he’s kind of obeying the “set the location” rule from battlefield guiding 101.
Standing beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature.
While Everett might not get a passing score for getting specific about the location in the first sentence, he did paint a verbal picture and pointed out the distant mountains and the nearby soldier graves. Then, he launched into a comparison theme about the ancient Greeks honoring their fallen soldiers.
Everett’s address wound along for pages…or two hours. He covered themes of memory of the fallen soldiers and memorialization before launching into a detailed history of the Pennsylvania campaign and battle of Gettysburg, complete with sentences acknowledging the local civilians role during “the weary hours of the night in painful expectation.” He credited Providence with the Union victory at Gettysburg and then focused on the suffering and dying soldiers in the aftermath. Using the outcome at Gettysburg as launching point, Everett then tried to define rebellion, secession, and some of the war politics while drawing illusions to grandiose examples from ancient history. Finally, he urged reunification of the country.
As Lincoln’s shorter address gained popularity with passing decades, Everett’s speech was usually relegated to a joke regarding its length. However, the orator’s address was of his era and an impressive tribute, especially for its time. Everett’s commitment to researching the history and details about a location where he gave an oration is evident, and he presented a very specific memorialization image with his words at Gettysburg.
In his concluding paragraph, Everett returned to rooting his words in the Gettysburg landscape. Many of the places he spoke of in his final benediction would have been visible from the location of the dedication ceremony.
And now, friends, fellow-citizens of Gettysburg and Pennsylvania, and you from remoter States, let me again, as we part, invoke your benediction on these honored graves. You feel, though the occasion is mournful, that it is good to be here. You feel that it was greatly auspicious for the cause of the country, that the men of the East and the men of the West, the men of nineteen sister States, stood side by side, on the perilous ridges of the battle. You now feel it a new bond of union, that they shall lie side by side, till a clarion, louder than that which marshalled them to the combat, shall awake their slumbers. God bless the Union;–it is dearer to us for the blood of brave men which has been shed in its defence. The spots on which they stood and fell; these pleasant heights; the fertile plain beneath them; the thriving village whose streets so lately rang with the strange din of war; the fields beyond the ridge, where the noble Reynolds held the advancing foe at bay, and, while he gave up his own life, assured by his forethought and self-sacrifice the triumph of the two succeeding days; the little streams which wind through the hills, on whose banks in after-times the wondering ploughman will turn up, with the rude weapons of savage warfare, the fearful missiles of modern artillery; Seminary Ridge, the Peach-Orchard, Cemetery, Culp, and Wolf Hill, Round Top, Little Round Top, humble names, henceforward dear and famous,–no lapse of time, no distance of space, shall cause you to be forgotten. “The whole earth,” said Pericles, as he stood over the remains of his fellow-citizens, who had fallen in the first year of the Peloponnesian War,–“the whole earth is the sepulchre of illustrious men.” All time, he might have added, is the millennium of their glory. Surely I would do no injustice to the other noble achievements of the war, which have reflected such honor on both arms of the service, and have entitled the armies and the navy of the United States, their officers and men, to the warmest thanks and the richest rewards which a grateful people can pay. But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates THE BATTLES OF GETTYSBURG.
(Aside: I love how he says battles, using the plural. He chooses to see the fights at different locations and on different days almost as separate battles which is an interesting concept. Not one that holds up well in traditional military interpretation or when viewed strategically, but still intriguing to ponder.)
Circling back to the idea that Everett masters “grounding” his address, his Gettysburg address was for delivery at Gettysburg. As he wrote the speech, he envisioned the land and the scene that would surround him and his listeners. He tried to give meaning to the battlefield land and to the deaths of the soldiers who would be interred in the national cemetery. He made his audience look around and come to grips with the history of their surroundings.
While I’m not inclined to take other guiding tips from Everett’s speech, I have enjoyed the example and reminder of “set the scene” and help listeners connect with the power of place. Everett wanted to educate and inspire at a particular time and place, a very different goal than the sixteenth president approached with his own short remarks. Arguably, Everett accomplished his goals, but times were changing and the vision for the future presented by other speakers that day overshadowed Everett’s teaching moment about Gettysburg and Greeks.
For the full text of Everett’s speech, please visit: https://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/everett-gettysburg-address-speech-text/
Gabor Borrit, The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows. (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2006).
David T. Dixon, The Lost Gettysburg Address: Charles Anderson’s Civil War (Santa Barbara, B-List History, 2015).
Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1992).