The Gettysburg Gospel

This book by Professor Gabor Boritt, the retired founding Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, is an outstanding inspection of the Gettysburg Address, placing it in its context and tracing its creation.

He begins by describing the town of Gettysburg in 1863. “Gettysburg had eight churches with nine congregations, with Lutherans and Presbyterians predominating. It had a new rural burial ground on Cemetery Hill. The schools were public: Pennsylvania required public education and, as one would expect in a college town, Gettysburg had good schools, including two private ones for girls, and many private instructors. The town had gaslight and some paved sidewalks, but its streets were alternately dusty or muddy. The seat of government for Adams County, it had a beautiful new courthouse, built in 1859, close to the central square, ‘the Diamond,’ as the locals called it. It had new warehouses around a railroad station, also newly built in 1859, right after that modern mode of transportation had arrived in town. … Half of the population worked as artisans, a quarter as professionals, a quarter as unskilled laborers. The ethnic stock was Scotch-Irish and German, but everyone else also seemed to be represented, including new immigrants, who made up nearly 7 percent of the town’s population. Black people, mostly the poorest part of the community, numbered 190, about 8 percent of the population. There were professionals and craftsmen among them, and even for the poorest hope often lived–one third of the black people had escaped from slave states, and freedom meant everything. Basil Biggs, for example, moved his family from Maryland to Gettysburg in 1858 so that his seven children would have educational opportunities, and rented a farm from one of the most prominent members of the community. Biggs farmed and worked as a veterinarian–he must have been very good with animals–and by the end of the war would own his own farm, right on Cemetery Ridge, including the copse of trees toward which Robert E. Lee had sent his doomed soldiers on July 3. Gettysburg was a modern town, a place of hope for many.” [p. 6]

He also discusses the medical situation after the battle. “Jonathan Letterman, the medical director of the Army of the Potomac, had developed a remarkable system of caring for the wounded, but it was crippled by the commanding generals, first by ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker who, chasing after Lee as he invaded Pennsylvania, did not wish to be encumbered by substantial amounts of medical supplies. This left ‘no system at all,’ as Letterman would write in an official report that tried to minimize the disaster. Then Hooker’s successor, George Gordon Meade, timidly kept much of what remained out of the possible reach of the Confederates–and so also of his own army. This Letterman would liken to engaging in battle ‘without ammunition.’ … It would have been impossible to cope fully even without the bumbling of generals. The able Letterman himself went along when, with victory in hand, Meade followed the retreating Lee and, expecting another major battle, took with him most of the medical corps. … Close to 21,000 wounded Union and Confederate soldiers remained behind in Gettysburg. … Out of the 106 medical officers left behind, perhaps 35 could actually operate.” [pp. 9-10]

The United States government and citizenry responded to the medical crisis in Gettysburg that resulted from the battle. “The first wagons of the Sanitary Commission arrived on July 6. A day later, rail communication was restored by an ingenious former Gettysburg College professor, Herman Haupt–but with the temporary terminal a mile east of town. ‘Refrigerating cars’–cars which had been converted to moveable icehouses–brought ‘tons of ice, mutton, poultry, fish, vegetables, soft bread, eggs, butter,’ not only the necessities but luxuries, ‘delicate food.’ Provisions were badly needed. ‘Lee’s army had taken everything,’ leaving the area ‘almost entirely destitute.'” … Eventually, the army sent supplies, and coffins, too, but the private groups continued to play a major role.” [p. 18]

Professor Boritt tells us the US soldiers and the rebels received the same care. “Rebs would report that in hospital tents, ‘Confederate and Yankee are often promiscuously thrown together.’ At the Sanitary Commission’s supply house in the center of Gettysburg, doctors waited for their turn to get supplies, regardless of which side they belonged to. … Clergymen ministered equally to both sides, but that, too, could be a mixed blessing. If you were Catholic or Jewish or perchance a non-believer, all too often you still got a Protestant minister.” [p. 21]

He also discusses how Gettysburg attorney David Wills handled the arrangements for the National Cemetery and its dedication. Wills hired William Saunders to design the burial grounds and attended to a host of details, including communicating with and arranging the participation of the speakers, such as Edward Everett and, of course, President Lincoln.

A story not many have heard is that of William H. Johnson, who was Lincoln’s valet and accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg. Johnson “may have been the only black person on the train to Gettysburg.” [p. 53] Lincoln and Johnson had a close relationship. “He had brought Johnson, a young, dark-skinned man, when he came from Illinois. Lincoln and Johnson had traveled together to Washington in early 1861, and newspaperman Henry Villard commented on the black man’s ‘untiring vigilance,’ describing him as ‘the most useful member of the party.’ Lincoln wanted Johnson at the White House, but the staff there would not accept an outsider. As the president tried to find a job for Johnson, he explained that ‘the difference of color between him & the other servants is the cause of our separation.’ The White House staff was light-skinned. America had created some strange race relations. ‘Valet’ and ‘servant’ may not describe well the developing relationship between the two men. Lincoln had the knack of making everyone feel his equal. He characterized Johnson as ‘honest, faithful, sober, industrious, and handy.’ At another time he wrote: ‘I have confidence as to his integrity and faithfulness.’ Still, he referred to him at first in the parlance of the time as ‘a colored boy.’ By the time Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, he could speak of Johnson as ‘a worthy man.’ Johnson was a year older (we don’t know his exact age) and the president, too, was growing in other ways. … After Lincoln talked with Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and made clear that ‘if you can find him the place shall really be obliged,’ Johnson landed a job at the Treasury Department, which allowed him to return to the White House to help Lincoln, shaving him, serving as a messenger; and if black memory in Washington is to be trusted, the president ‘depended upon him for protection’–in short, a bodyguard and friend. Lincoln took along Johnson, for example, when he went to Antietam to visit General McClellan in the fall of 1862. … And now Johnson would accompany Lincoln to Gettysburg. A curt note went to the Treasury on the morning of the 18th: ‘William goes with me.’ ” [p. 54] Johnson would later die of smallpox. “In the cold January of 1864, Lincoln had Johnson buried at Arlington Cemetery, and personally paid for the burial. His headstone identifies Johnson with a single word: ‘Citizen.’ ” [p. 170]

Professor Boritt goes into the various drafts of Lincoln’s speech, concluding Lincoln had written the first half of his first draft at the White House and probably finished it when he arrived at the Wills House in Gettysburg, then wrote a second draft in Gettysburg, and that was the one from which he read. Others were drafted afterward. He also discusses Edward Everett’s 2-hour-long address, as well as Reverend Thomas Stockton’s invocation.

He ends by discussing the Gettysburg Address’ legacy. He establishes that in the years after, the Emancipation Proclamation was far more popular among people than the Gettysburg Address, and it was only after decades that the Gettysburg Address surpassed the Emancipation Proclamation, during the reconciliation of white Northerners and Southerners.

This is an excellent book for students of the Civil War era. I can highly recommend it.



  1. It sounds interesting, but begs the question: How is it different from Garry Wills’ great Lincoln at Gettysburg?

    1. It’s an answer to Wills, since Dr. Boritt believes Wills missed the mark in a few areas.

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