Pittsburgh Gazette correspondent struggled to report Lincoln’s speech

News from the dedication of the new national cemetery at Gettysburg was surprisingly late reaching Pittsburgh 150 years ago.

"This famous little town is overflowing with people," The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette reported on Nov. 20, 1863, in a skimpy two-sentence story the day after the ceremonies. "Special trains have brought thousands, and other thousands have come in from the surrounding country."

Why so brief a dispatch when the Gazette had sent its own reporter to the event? After all, by 1863 telegraph operators could send the breaking news across the nation in a matter of minutes after events occurred. The cemetery dedication had ended by 2:30 p.m. Nov. 19.

AP video: Differences in written, spoken speech explored

Joseph Ignatius Gilbert was a young stenographer and reporter in Harrisburg when he covered President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address for the New York Associated Press in 1863. (AP video; 11/19/2013)

The Gazette's on-the-scene correspondent, identified only by the letter "H," offered an explanation the next day. "It is difficult for a Western reporter to get justice at the East," he wrote in the Gazette on Nov. 21. Reporters from the big Eastern papers "have the [telegraph] operators under their heels, and I have reason to believe that 10,000 words were crowded in ahead of my dispatch last night, driving me off at a late hour to a distant point to get anything off before two o'clock a.m.," he complained. "H" had to hop aboard a train and send his report from Conemaugh, outside Johnstown.

When the Gazette's correspondent finally was able to get his story into print, he presented a version highly complimentary to President Abraham Lincoln. The dispatch also includes an anecdote about the president's attention to detail.

Lincoln made his brief remarks following what the Gazette reported was a two-hour, four-minute oration by 69-year-old Edward Everett. Everett had served as U.S. secretary of state, governor of and senator from Massachusetts and president of Harvard. He had a national reputation as a speaker in an era when people appreciated and expected lengthy addresses.

Everett quoted poetry and drew parallels to events in Ancient Greece as he reviewed the three-day battle at Gettysburg. As he spoke, "the most attentive and appreciating listener was old Abe himself," the Gazette correspondent wrote.

"He seemed to be absorbed in profound thought till the spell was broken, by a mistake of the orator, in saying [Confederate commander] Gen. Lee, when he should have said [Union commander] Gen. Meade," the Gazette reported.

When Lincoln caught the error, he turned to William Seward, his secretary of state, and "with a loud voice" said " 'Gen. Meade,' but the speaker seemed not to hear it at this time."

When Everett "again made the same mistake," Lincoln corrected him in a louder tone. This time, the president's comment was enough "to secure a correction by the orator."

The Gazette's correspondent estimated the size of the crowd at between 30,000 and 50,000 people, and at least some appeared to have been restive and noisy. "For some minutes after the orator commenced, there was considerable confusion to the right that seemed not easily to be silenced," the story said. "The crowd was packed so densely that the marshals who sat on their horses amidst the multitudes could not move toward the desired quarter."

"But at length, [during] an impressive passage of the orator, contrasting the importance of the Grecian struggle at Marchion with that of our Republic on the spot where he stood, the dense crowd gave way and a breathless attention was maintained throughout." The reference to Marchion probably is the reporter's mishearing of a reference to the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. at Marathon.

"At the conclusion of the oration, a choir from the Musical Association of Baltimore treated the people to a beautiful dirge, written at Gettysburg," the story said.

Then it was Lincoln's turn. "[The] President unwound himself, stepped to the front of the platform and recited in a high and singing voice, his hymn to the Union dead," biographer Stephen B. Oates wrote in his 1977 life of Lincoln, "With Malice Toward None."

One common narrative regarding Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is that the crowd at the cemetery had been disappointed both by the short length and the content of the president's speech. "Lamon, that speech won't scour," the president is supposed to have said to his friend Ward Hill Lamon. Historian David Herbert Donald writes that Lincoln's reference was to an inefficient plow that allowed soil to build up on its blade.

"No doubt his judgment was also affected by his fatigue and by illness, which would prostrate him by the time he returned to the White House," Mr. Donald wrote in his 1995 biography.

The Gazette's man on the scene didn't see it that way. The Gazette was the city's major Republican newspaper, and it had been supporting the president since his run for the office in 1860.

Lincoln's introduction was greeted by "immense applause," the story said.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers established, upon this continent, a government subscribed in liberty and dedicated to the fundamental principles that all men are created equal."

Lincoln wrote and rewrote his speech multiple times and made additional corrections after he delivered it. His opening sentence as reported in the Gazette story differs from the standard version printed in history books, but it was, nevertheless, met by shouts of "Good, good" and additional clapping and cheering.

The Gazette story says the president's brief speech was interrupted multiple times by "Great applause," "Immense applause" and more cries of "Good."

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"Here let us resolve that what they have done shall not have been done in vain," Lincoln says in the Gazette story. "That the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom, and that Government of the people, founded by the people, shall not perish." Modern readers will miss the closing phrase "for the people," but the crowd didn't mind.

"The conclusion of the President's remarks, was followed by immense applause, and three cheers given for him," the story said.

"A powerful impression was made this day upon the nation," the Gazette story concluded. "More than any other single event will this glorious dedication serve the heroism and deepen the resolution of the living to conquer all hazards," he wrote. "More than anything else will this day's work contribute to the nationality of the great republic."

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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