Lincoln and His Five Versions of the Gettysburg Address


What did Abraham Lincoln really say at Gettysburg?

If you’ve seen the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, you heard the estimable Southern historian Shelby Foote relay how disappointed Lincoln was after he delivered the Gettysburg Address. How, according to Foote, Lincoln said his speech “didn’t scour.”

The facts say something else.

Lincoln, according to Civil War and Lincoln historian Douglas L. Wilson, had every intention of making the Gettysburg Address short. Wilson is the lead author of the book Long Remembered, and was a consultant for the Steven Spielberg Lincoln film. (Watch the movie credits and you’ll see him listed among the “Special Thanks,” as well as the Library of Congress.) According to Wilson:

The calculated brevity of the speech…doubtless contributed to the confusion of an audience of listeners expecting to hear something very different. But it had great utility for the other audiences that the author undoubtedly had in mind.

The most immediate of these were, of course, millions of newspaper readers. In an age where newspapers were virtually the only access Americans had to news of important events, the great majority of Northern adults would have seen, usually on the front page, not just a notice of the President’s speech at the Gettysburg ceremony, but, because of its brevity, the speech itself in its entirety. The occasion was such that even Democratic newspapers, in other respects uniformly hostile to the Lincoln administration, duly carried the telegraphed account…. *

Long before the very idea of social media, Lincoln had figured out how to take his message viral. Had there been Twitter in his time, President Lincoln surely would have had a handle.

The critical two, maybe three, minutes

The problem was, because the Gettysburg Address was so short, nobody can be one–hundred–percent sure what Lincoln said.

Only one reporter from the Associated Press was there as Abraham Lincoln delivered the remarks that would later be etched in stone on his monument. And we know, thanks to one of the many revealing documents from the Library of Congress that have been reproduced in the Long Remembered book, that the A.P. version of the Gettysburg Address did not completely jibe with the two drafts Lincoln is thought to have written before going to Gettysburg that November day in 1863.

Fortunately, the various versions of the Gettysburg Address—the five that scholars know Lincoln wrote, and the one the A.P. reporter transcribed—are all similar enough that what is etched onto the Lincoln Memorial and into the hearts of so many Americans is very close to what Lincoln actually uttered that day at Gettysburg.

But pity the poor A.P. guy, who was used to long-winded speeches, as Lincoln delivered the entire Gettysburg Address in probably three minutes, tops—less time than it takes some baristas to make a latte.





*Copyright Douglas L. Wilson. In Long Remembered: Lincoln and His Five Versions of the Gettysburg Address (Levenger Press).
One of the photographs of Lincoln at Gettysburg
(Photo, Library of Congress)

One of the photographs of Lincoln at Gettysburg
(Photo, Library of Congress)


What did Lincoln really say at Gettysburg?

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