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The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln and Witness of Landscape

It is now a little over a hundred and fifty years since Abraham Lincoln took the train to Southern Pennsylvania. His mission was to dedicate the cemetery of the union dead who had fallen in the decisive battle of the American Civil War at Gettysburg. There can be no doubt about the literary power of what Lincoln said there; he expressed noble ideas in elevated, if abstract, language. Liberals and neo- conservatives alike are united in praising his address which has become an American classic. For many it is a definitive expression of ideals that first found expression in America, which they say have universal application. Indeed so highly regarded has the address become that those who amble round the excellent bookshop in the visitor centre which welcomes people to the battlefield at Gettysburg might easily imagine that Lincoln’s “framing” of the engagement was more important than the battle itself.

The short address itself contains but three ideas. The first is that all men are created equal and that The United States was, as a nation, rather than a collection of states, “dedicated” to this proposition. The second of Lincoln’s notions is that the American Civil War between 1861- and 1865, was exclusively about the slavery in the Southern states which wished to secede from The United States. The third was that if the Confederacy were to be successful in maintaining its independence then not only would democracy become extinct in the United States, but that it would also “perish from the earth.”

How can we tell whether Lincoln’s framing of the battle is a moving and profound description of what the Civil War was about, or whether it was just a piece of high sounding hack-work cobbled together from the phrases of others to meet the requirements of a formal occasion? Or something in between? How can we decide whether Lincoln’s interpretation of the battle flows naturally from the facts of the case, rather than an ideological construct imposed on the evidence?

One way of testing the second proposition, that about slavery- which is all that we can be concerned with here- is to look more closely at the battlefield itself. Too often we ignore what places can teach us.  Battlefields are not simply places where armies have come into conflict. They are the points at which geography meets history. We cannot go back in time. But we can stand exactly where a Roman engineer stood as he surveyed the route of Roman road. Likewise we can stand exactly where those who fought at Gettysburg stood, and thus recover at least something of what they experienced. Our appreciation of what happened at Gettysburg, and our understanding of how Lincoln interpreted it can be enhanced not merely by the historical record, important though that is, but by the geographical realities that we find there.

Of course it is right in wartime that statesmen should seek to explain to their friends, to their enemies, and to the world at large why it is that they are fighting. I shall always remember my mother ( 1907-2010 ) telling me  how in the summer of 1940 she had lived from one of Churchill’s speeches to the next. The danger is that the statesman’s rhetoric will soar too high, and that interpretation and explanation will become propaganda. High purpose are one thing; highfalutin nonsense another. What we think and say about a battle ought not conflict with what really took place.

In many places in Virginia recent developments have encroached on the battlefields of the Civil War. Happily this is not true at Gettysburg. Indeed the very importance that Lincoln attributed to the battle may have preserved the surroundings of the attractive town ( through which a friend and I drove recently). Moreover the National Parks Service has done a splendid job on the battlefield itself, making it easy to follow what happened in early July 1863.

As the map makes clear, the preliminary fighting which had occupied the first two days of the battle had left the Union forces in control of all but one of the crucial geographical features that dominated the battle field. Most vitally the Union forces held Cemetery Ridge- about three quarters of a mile East Seminary Ridge on which the Confederates were drawn up.

Although the Union forces were a few feet higher than the Confederates, neither this nor the distance between the two armies was crucial to the outcome of the battle. The decisive factor- as I first saw from a moving car from behind what had been the Union line – was the lack of cover. I shuddered inwardly to see the two gentle slopes across which the Confederates would have to make their way before they could close with the Union position. This impression was reinforced when we got to the other side of the valley. From the Confederate “start line,” there can be no doubt that the geography told mercilessly in favour of the defenders of the Union position.

In his account of the battle, Jefferson Davis- the erstwhile President of the Confederacy- says that the Cemetery Ridge “dominates” the valley to its East. In this he was right, but he goes on to say that the ground over which the Confederates attacked was “undulating.” I could see little evidence of this. The only “undulations” I could see were   small water courses which, as they flowed down Seminary Ridge towards the middle of the valley had cut into the top soil. Subsequently these indentations- which run down towards the centre of valley NOT across it – have been colonised by oaks. But the largest of them, ( which I could not explore in detail ) extends only about quarter of the way across what became the killing ground. Such “undulations” can have provided no tactically useful cover. Indeed by forcing the Confederate attackers to bunch together they may in fact have made things even easier for the federal gunners.

It is difficult then not to think that great general though Lee was, he had been outmanoeuvred on this occasion. Certainly this was what Jefferson Davis thought when he wrote his memoirs many years later. Lee had run out of good options: and instead of accepting a tactical reverse by withdrawing, he gambled everything to smash the Union centre with a mass infantry attack across the ground I have described.

Let Sir Winston Churchill- no stranger to battlefields-take up the story:-

“We see today, upon this battlefield so piously preserved by North and South, and where many of the guns still stand in their firing stations, the bare slight slopes up which this grand infantry charge was made. But, like the old Guard at Waterloo, they faced odds and metal beyond the virtue of mortals. The Federal rifled artillery paused until they were within a thousand yard; then they opened again with a roar and cut lanes through the steadfastly advancing ranks…”

Lest Churchill be thought to be over-praising the Confederates, this is how  J.G. Randal, a Lincoln expert, and hardly an advocate of the Confederate cause, concurs:-

“With colours carried high and “ a precision and steadiness that extorted… admiration” from their opponents they came on unhindered while tense moments passed as Union fire was withheld…As the Confederates came within close range a deadly and destructive fire was opened upon them, mowing down thousands and throwing regiments into disorder. This, however did not stop all of them; about a hundred [ penetrated the Union position. ] For brief moments the battle seemed almost to waver, some Union batteries being nearly exhausted of ammunition, but soon it was over…the magnificent Southern charge utterly shattered and broken.”

What was in the minds of the Confederates as they charged across the valley? As we have seen, the clear implication of Lincoln’s address was that the enemies of his administration were fighting for slavery or were the dupes of those who were.  But in truth this insinuation finds little support in the realities of the battlefield at Gettysburg.

Such a view shows ignorance not merely of the battlefield, but also of Southern society. In 1860 the population of the Confederate States was roughly nine million, of which four million were slaves. These slaves were owned by about a third of a million slave owners- a significant proportion of whom owned only one slave. The renowned black historian John Hope Franklin writes thus:-

“Fully three fourths of the white people of the South had neither slaves nor an immediate economic interest in the maintenance of slavery or the plantation system.” Earlier in the same paragraph he had written that:- “The impression should not be conveyed that the white population of the South…generally enjoyed the fruits of slave labour.”Moreover the famous black Marxist historian W.E.B. Du Bois stressed the extent to which wealth in the South was concentrated in the hands of a small number of large planters, who represented less than one twentieth of the population.

So, while relatively few people enjoyed the direct benefits of slavery support for the Confederate cause was widespread throughout all classes of whites in the South. There were, of course, considerable numbers of Southerners who remained loyal to the Union, and many volunteered to fight in its army. Southern society was not then in the pockets of the slave owning aristocracy. The plantation shaped Southern culture. But the influence that the great slave owners exerted over their white neighbours was extended not by force but by oratory. There was a strong streak of independence among poorer white Southerners and hence also within the armies of the South, such as that which fought at Gettysburg. Lee had to exert himself against suggestions that officers should be elected, as E Merton Coulter explains that “The Confederate soldier was an individualist, who believed in his personal rights, and among them he considered foremost the right to decide who should give him orders.”  These were not then men who had to be herded into attack by officers wielding revolvers.

When one looks out from beneath the oak trees that cover Seminary Ridge the question emerges: why then did the Confederates march out towards the storm of exploding shrapnel and rifle fire that they knew would meet them? Was it really to protect the property- the slaves- of other men more fortunate than themselves? This just does not sound credible to me. Richard Weaver aggrees: “Those who imagine that the Confederate soldier fought to preserve a property investment in slavery have not begun to understand Southern psychology.”

Southern psychology though was the not the starting point of the reflections which underlay Lincoln’s address. For him the primary fact was that battle had taken place at the same time of the year that Declaration of Independence had been signed. It was, in this fact that Lincoln thought he had discovered the key to understanding the role that both the battle and the Declaration should have in American history. The battle was not simply a military engagement, but the moment when America was to be defined. From henceforth the declaration was to control the meaning of the battle, and the full promise of the Declaration was to be brought to fruition by the victory in the struggle that had been won at Gettysburg. The origins of the yoking together of these two very disparate phenomena is of some interest.

In late June 1863 Lee’s advance into Maryland, and worse his invasion of Pennsylvania, had produced panic in Washington. “The whole North was ablaze with excitement,” says Margaret Leech. Rumours even began to spread that a steamer was moored on the Potomac ready to evacuate the cabinet if the worst should happen. The news then that Lee had been foiled at Gettysburg caused an extraordinary out burst of relief and joy. Shortly after the reports of the victory reached Washington Lincoln told a group of supporters who had gathered to celebrate – in Donald’s words how “appropriate it was that the Union victory [ had ] occurred on the nation’s birthday.” It was- Lincoln continued- “a glorious theme and the occasion for a speech, but I am not [ now ] prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.” The occasion was as we have seen to come five months later, and in the interim he have time to develop his insight, and to come under considerable pressure to explain what he thought that the war was really about. For example the railroad magnate John Murray Forbes ( 1813-1898 ) urged him to emphasise that the conflict was really a struggle between the people and the aristocracy.

If the speech was long cogitated in the shadow of the Declaration of Independence, it was also carefully prepared. None of Lincoln’s preparatory notes or earlier drafts of the Gettysburg address exist but we do know that he had fully two weeks to get couch his thoughts in the language appropriate for the dedication of a cemetery. We should beware of thinking that because the address is brief it was not carefully composed. Like Cranmer, with whom in some ways his talent resembles, Lincoln must have taken made great efforts to get the every syllable of his composition right. However the pains which Lincoln took were not limited to verbal music. Donald tells us that he went so far as to call in the botanist who had designed the cemetery for consultations about the typography of the place. In this he showed a sound instinct. But useful as they are maps are no substitute for seeing the ground itself. And Lincoln well knew this. Many years earlier when he was a lawyer he had represented a railroad company whose bridge had been badly damaged in a collision with a river steamer. But in this instance Lincoln was not satisfied with second hand information that he had received, but insisted in visiting the site of the accident where he measured the currents to show that incident had not been caused an error in the design of the bridge but by the failure of one of the steamer’s paddle wheels.

For the composition of the Gettysburg Address however, Lincoln relied not on observations but on his own reflections, prompted by the coincidence that the battle had been fought and the Declaration had been signed in early July. I sense that he may well have been verbally polishing his phrases for much of the time between the battle and the ceremony, and when he thought he had got the words right they must then have become engraved in his memory. If so it might explain the otherwise surprising lack of working papers.  The earliest manuscript of the address that we have is very advanced draft the first page of which is written White House stationary was almost certainly written in ink in Washington.  We also know from Donald that Lincoln expressed himself as being unsatisfied with the ending of the draft that he had brought with him from Washington, and that he seems to have rewritten the last page in pencil after he had arrived at Gettysburg. In all this we should note that the thrust of what he was going to say had taken shape long before he had seen the battlefield – despite the fact that he had shown himself conscious of the importance of topographical factors in understanding what had happened there.

An arcane point perhaps? Well no, I don’t think so. There are two interesting pieces of evidence, which taken together suggest that Lincoln may have been given cause to rethink his interpretation when he saw what the Confederates had attempted in their desperate charge. The first of these snippets is that immediately after Lincoln had given his speech he admitted that he was unhappy with what he had said.  “That speech” he told his friend Lamon “won’t scour.” The interest here is of course in the word scour. The primary meaning of which is something like clean- as in scouring powder. Donald however thinks that Lincoln was referring “to the ploughs used on the western prairies that failed to turn back the heavy soil and allowed it to collect on the blade.” And he goes on to suggest that in this instance Lincoln was referring to the way in which he ( Lincoln) thought that his short address had left those who heard it “with a sense of being let down.” That is to say, in terms of Lincoln’s analogy, that the plough that is the speech, had failed to cut into or influence the audience in the way that he had hoped. This is certainly a possible interpretation. But what if the ground in the ploughing analogy was not the audience but the subject matter of Lincoln’s discourse? Could Lincoln in fact be confessing that his remarks had failed to penetrate the matter’s core. Could he nervously been expressing his intuition that there was in fact something wrong with the interpretation that he had brought with him from Washington? Could he have been confessing that he “hadn’t got to the bottom of it?”

There is an interesting further hint that something like may this may be indeed the case. Jefferson Davis’ book the “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” contains the following:-

“As an affair of arms it [ i.e. the battle of Gettysburg ] was marked by mighty feats of valour to which both combatants may point with military pride. It was a graceful thing in President Lincoln if, as reported, when shown the steeps which the Northern men persistently held, he answered, “I am proud to be the countryman of the men who assailed those heights.”

The authority for this statement is of course tainted. Davis was the President of the defeated republic and he was naturally making the best he could of his discomfiture. Moreover he gives no source for Lincoln’s remark. However Davis’ phrasing suggests that the remark in question had appeared in some newspaper. While I am not quite happy about the word “heights”  ( perhaps “hills” was what he really said ) it seems likely that Lincoln said something very similar to what Davis reports.

If so, the implications for our understanding of the Gettysburg address are considerable. If Lincoln in fact said what Davis claimed he said it subverts what he said in his address. We do not know whether Lincoln was shown the battlefield before or after he had spoken If Donald’s account is to be believed the latter is more likely. Others say that he saw the battlefield immediately before he spoke. But in either event his situation was unenviable. He too must have seen what I saw, and realised that his remarks could not survive ( i.e. did not “scour” ) the mute but compelling testimony of the battlefield: namely that the men who assailed those heights would not have done so had they thought that they were merely defending the their richer neighbours supposed rights to own slaves!

What was Lincoln to do when he realised that matters were not really as they had seemed to him in Washington? His embarrassment must have been real when he realised that the rhetorical device he had employed which linked the Declaration with the battle had misled him into making claims about the latter which in view of the landscape he had just seen he now knew to have been at best exaggerated. Lincoln was far too shrewd a man not to know what he had done. But the speech he had just given could not be rewritten at short notice. Nor could it be retracted in wartime. The only decent recourse he had was to take the sting out of the unfair intellectual rabbit punch he knew he had just delivered by praising the Confederate soldiery. And this to his great credit he did.

There will be those who seek to minimise the importance of the remark reported by Davis. They will doubtless suggest that Lincoln was merely complimenting the Confederates on their “military valour” in the same way that Davis paid tribute to the Union fortitude shown at Gettysburg. Paying such a compliment was doubtless part of what Lincoln wanted to do, but it does not, I think, exhaust the meaning, or the implications, of what he said.

We need to recall once more, the charges which on that very day, and in that very place, Lincoln had made against the Confederacy. According to Lincoln his opponents were hostile to the basic and self evident ideals upon which the United States had been founded; even worse, if they were successful in achieving independence, he had said that then no democracy could ever again flourish on earth. These are very grave moral and intellectual accusations. And yet- if Davis is to be believed-  on the very day that he levelled them, Lincoln said that he would be “proud” to be the countryman of those guilty of such grave wrongdoing.

The case is then a curious one. There seem to be two Lincolns. The first ( the one who is most usually celebrated ) turns out to be someone who inhabited a world without nuance or shade, a sophist who sought to frame the Civil War as a Manichean struggle between good and evil, a man determined to attribute the worst of motives to his opponents. The other Lincoln, the one who spoke the words attributed to him by Davis, was a man who understood that he too could make mistakes, a gracious man, with the knack of speaking words grounded in the wisdom of the hearthstones he had so eloquently evoked in his inaugural address. We should, I believe, treat the first Lincoln as we would any other war propagandist- but we should revere the second- the Lincoln who, after he had seen the battlefield at Gettysburg, sensed that the struggle was not about solely slavery, or any other abstract “proposition,” but about the passion that men have in their hearts to live beneath their own flag.


It has become traditional for me to say that I make no pretensions to making academic contributions here. My interest in the interplay of landscape and history has been informed by looking for Roman roads in South Wiltshire. I have no deep background in recent Lincoln scholarship, and such reading as I have done has been disorganised, partial, and limited.

For example there have been two histories of The American Civil War published recently that by Shelby Foote from Southern perspective, and “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” by James McPherson- which provides a Northern take. Both are very highly regarded, by those qualified to judge. I have read neither.  I am though familiar with the introduction which James McPherson contribute to what I suppose to be the most recent edition of Jefferson Davis’ book “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” ( 1881) I have not mastered all its two vast volumes. But it does seem to be though a book which has been overlooked. McPherson is clearly right when he says that it is “must reading” for anyone interested in the period. What I have written about the Gettysburg address has been moulded David Herbert Donald, “Lincoln” ( New York, 995)  p. 460 ff and by the second volume  J.G. Randal’s  “Lincoln the President” (London, no date but c. 1945) p. 303 ff from which his account of the Southern charge has also been taken, p.282. The lines from Churchill are taken from his “History of the English Speaking Peoples” ( London, 1958) Vol. 3, p 188. The figures about make up of Southern society come from a table in J.G. Randall’s  “Civil War and Reconstruction,” ( London, 1937) p.60 and from Churchill. The reference to John Hope Franklin is to his important book “From Slavery to Freedom, A history of Negro Americans” 3rd edition ( New York, 1967) p.186. The W.E.Burghardt. Du Bois reference comes from p.32 of   “Black Reconstruction, An essay toward a history of the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America 1860-1880.”( New York, 1934) Both Franklin and Du Bois are valuable correctives to an overly white view of American history, although Franklin criticises Du Bois for trying to shoehorn the evidence in a Marxist framework p.670. Both Du Bois and especially Franklin contain full bibliographies. Franklin explains the support given by non saving owning whites to the institution by writing that “there was the hope on the part of [ them] that they would some day become owners of slaves.” (p.186)  This was, no doubt, one factor, but by itself it seems hardly a sufficient explanation of the deep loyalty of so many poor whites to the Confederate cause.

Richard Weaver and Merton Coulter were both old style Southern scholars. The reference from the former is taken from “The Southern Tradition at Bay, a history of post bellum thought” ( New York, 1968) p. 183; that from Coulter comes from “The Confederate States of America” ( Baton Rouge, 1950) p. 329.

For the “scouring” quote see Donald, p. 465. The important line about Lincoln being proud is Davis Op Cit,vol 2, p 378- at the end of Davis’ account of the battle which may explain why it has been overlooked. It is mentioned neither by Randall nor Donald.

I have taken some snippets from Clifford Dowdey, ( 1904-1979 )  “Experiment in Rebellion” ( New York, 1946)  which is a kind of Southern answer to Margaret Leach’s ( 1893-1973 ) “Reveille in Washington” ( London, 1942 ) which I have also used. The brief quote is from p. 255.

Dowdey’s book is of interest because it goes some way to refute the suggestion, current among some Neo- conservatives that the South was in essence a closed and potentially totalitarian society. There was a lot wrong with the ante- bellum South- most notably of course slavery which was clearly an indefensible institution. However we now know a great deal the genesis and nature of totalitarianism, and the South does not fit the bill, as anyone who for example compares Dowdey’s book with ( say ) Merle Fainsod, “Smolensk under Soviet Rule” ( Boston, 1985, but originally 1958 ). Open societies come in many forms. They have their own difficulties and weaknesses such as the slavery in the South.  But no clarity is gained about either by confusing flawed and insufficiently open societies with closed ones. There were plantations in the South, but The Soviet Union was a plantation.

I have been influenced by  M.E. Bradford, “Dividing the House: the gnosticism of Lincoln’s political rhetoric” in the conservative quarterly “Modern Age”, Winter 1979, p.10-24. Crucial for understanding Bradford’s approach is Eric Voegelin, “The New Science of Politics” ( Chicago, 1952). The importance of political religions of the kind analysed by Voegelin has more recently been stressed by Michael Burliegh in “The Third Reich, a New History” ( London, 2000). In this connection the distinction drawn by Cecil Chesterton between Southern and Northern abolitionism is of interest. See his “A History of The United States” ( London, 1919) p.132ff. Southern abolitionism being in his view concerned with practical issues of how to deal with inherited burden of slavery, while Northern abolitionism was filled with a murderous hatred of slave owners of the kind which gave rise the catastrophic episode at Harper’s Ferry. ( There were, of course, Southern hot heads too! ) Those who doubt the relevance of Burliegh’s treatment to Lincoln would do well to consider Lincoln’s Lyceum Address delivered in January 1838 ( easily available on the internet) in which he explicitly called for a “political religion” promoted by every available means. It is not too much I think to call Lincoln the father of political correctness .

Finally there are two novels that should not be missed by anyone interested in understanding the issues which underlay The American Civil War. The first is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by  Harriet Beecher Stowe. The second is “The Leopard” Giuseppe di Lampedusa, which deals with the absorbtion  of  Kingdom Naples by The Kingdom of Piedmont under Cavour at about the same time as The American Civil War, as in the jargon of the social sciences it strips the racial element out of the data.