Lincoln’s “Flat Failure”: The Gettysburg Myth Revisited

by Harold Holzer

Abraham Lincoln, November 1863. Photograph by Alexander Gardner. (Gilder LehrmanA century and a half ago, Abraham Lincoln brought forth at Gettysburg a speech universally remembered as one of the greatest ever written, a gem not only of American political oratory, but of American literature.

Tributes have been devoted to it, re-creations staged of it, and books written about it. It is surely fair to say that no other American speech has ever inspired so much writing and so many more speeches. This paper may be the latest, but it certainly will not be the last.

Perhaps what makes the speech especially appealing to modern Americans are the handicaps Lincoln faced in delivering it: a late invitation to appear; a rude reminder that he should deliver no more than “a few appropriate remarks”; the distraction of a sick child at home; an unenviable spot on the program that day—following a stem-winder by the greatest orator of the era; and Lincoln’s deep aversion to public speechmaking of any kind once he became president. We have come to love the Gettysburg Address, in part, because in spite of all these obstacles Lincoln somehow composed a masterpiece.[1]

But we love the Gettysburg Address, too, because we sense that Lincoln wrote it in a burst of passion and genius. And perhaps some Americans learned to love it because they still believe that Lincoln summoned the divine inspiration to write it on a railroad train en route to Gettysburg, at the last possible minute. We love it because we have heard that the press hated it. And maybe, most of all, we love it because we have learned that Lincoln himself thought it was a failure. In fact, we have been taught that most of Lincoln’s contemporaries failed to appreciate it, too, just as they failed to appreciate Lincoln himself until he was gone. It only makes us love the Gettysburg Address the more.

If it is true that all or any of these myths have inspired our affection for Abraham Lincoln’s greatest speech, then we may well love the Gettysburg Address for the wrong reasons.

The fact is, the reputation of no other speech in all American history has ever been so warped by misconception and myth. True enough, Lincoln was invited late, he was told to keep it brief, he did have a challenging spot on the program that day, and he did have a sick child at home whose suffering surely reminded his worried parents of the illness that had taken the life of another son only a year and a half before. But much of the rest of the legend that makes the Gettysburg Address so appealing was conceived in liberties with the truth and dedicated to the proposition that you can fool most of the people most of the time.[2]

Take the myth of its creation on board the train from Washington. The legend originated with newspaperman Ben Perley Poore, who contended that the address was “written in the car on the way from Washington to the battlefield, upon a piece of pasteboard held on his knee.”[3]

Another passenger contended that Lincoln finished the entire manuscript by the time he reached Baltimore. Even more impressive was the claim by a corporal traveling with the President that not until their train reached Hanover—just twelve miles from Gettysburg—did Lincoln stand up after hours of storytelling and declare: “Gentlemen, this is all very pleasant, but the people will expect me to say something to them tomorrow, and I must give the matter some thought.” But the most absurd recollection of all came from Andrew Carnegie, of all people, then a young executive with the B & O Railroad, who claimed that not only did Lincoln write the Gettysburg Address on the train, but that Carnegie had personally handed Lincoln the pencil to do the writing.[4]

The fact is, Lincoln had been “giving the matter some thought” since at least November 8, 1863, eleven days before dedication day at Gettysburg. On the 8th, newspaperman Noah Brooks asked the President if he had written his remarks. “Not yet,” Lincoln replied—quickly adding: “Not finished anyway.” This means that he had already started writing. According to Brooks, Lincoln further explained: “I have written it over, two or three times, and I shall have to give it another lick before I am satisfied.”[5]

In the week and a half that followed, Lincoln anguished over Tad Lincoln’s precarious health, worked on his correspondence, held a Cabinet meeting, watched a parade, met with Italian sea captains, and took time to see a play starring—of all people—John Wilkes Booth. Yet by November 17 he was able to tell his attorney general that fully half his address was in final form. Not long afterward, former Secretary of War Simon Cameron got to see a copy, written, he remembered, “with a lead pencil on commercial notepaper.” Ward Hill Lamon, the Marshall of the District of Columbia who would travel to the event with the President, claimed that Lincoln read him the entire speech before they left together for Gettysburg on the 18th. But the notoriously self-serving Lamon could not help adding froth to the legend by claiming that the President confided: “It does not suit me, but I have not time for any more.” By this time, of course, he had devoted a good deal of time, as well as thought, to his Gettysburg Address.[6]

The idea that Lincoln did not take his Gettysburg opportunity seriously is preposterous. He did not even want to travel to the village on the same day as the ceremony, as originally planned by the War Department, for fear of missing the event, as he put it, “by the slightest accident.” It was Lincoln who insisted on starting out for Gettysburg the day before, to make certain that he was rested and prepared for the ceremonies. This was not a man who left things to the last minute.[7]

Besides, anyone who has seen the autograph copy of his February 11, 1861, farewell address to Springfield, truly written on a train, knows how difficult Lincoln found it to take pen in hand on the rocking, rolling railroad cars of the 1860s. He had agreed on that occasion to write out the farewell remarks he had just given extemporaneously for reporters traveling with him to his inauguration. But midway through the effort, he gave up. The jostling of the cars was transforming his usually precise penmanship into an indecipherable scrawl. Perhaps the effort was making him queasy. So he asked his secretary, John G. Nicolay, to take over the task. The rest of the surviving document is in Nicolay’s handwriting. If Lincoln did write anything en route to Gettysburg it has not survived. But chances are he recalled his Springfield experience and did not even try. Lincoln was too careful when it came to writing speeches in advance, too poor an impromptu speaker—and well aware of his shortcomings in that department—to make plausible the idea that he waited until the last minute to write his Gettysburg Address.[8]

The most stubborn of all the Gettysburg myths is the resilient legend that holds that the speech was poorly received when Lincoln delivered it—that, at best, only a few enthusiasts appreciated it, while most eyewitnesses did not. Such conclusions are inherently suspicious. In truth, eyewitnesses to Gettysburg disagreed about almost everything to do with Lincoln’s appearance there, even the weather.

One spectator remembered November 19, 1863, as “bright and clear.” Yet the Washington Chronicle reported rain showers. Some said 15,000 people crowded the town for the event. Others counted 100,000. Some went to their deaths insisting that Lincoln took a tour of the battlefield in the early morning hours on dedication day. Others swore that he stayed inside the Wills House until it was time to mount up for the procession to the ceremony.[9]

People even disagreed about the President’s horse. One visitor gushed that Lincoln looked “like Saul of old” that day as he sat astride “the largest . . . Chestnut horse” in the county. Another testified that he rode “a diminutive pony.” And yet another thought the horse was so small that Lincoln’s long legs practically dragged along the ground—inspiring one old local farmer to exclaim at the sight of him: “Say Father Abraham, if she goes to run away with yer . . . just stand up and let her go!” People on the scene did not even agree on the color of the horse. Surviving recollections state with equal certainty that it was “a white horse,” a “chestnut bay,” a “brown charger,” and a “black steed.”[10]

When such wildly diverse recollection becomes the rule—not the exception—how seriously should we take the claims of those who asserted that Lincoln’s speech fell on deaf ears at Gettysburg? This is especially so when it comes to the crucial question: Did the listeners appreciate the address? True, they had just heard a two-hour-long speech from the principal orator of the day, Edward Everett. Drained and likely exhausted, they may not have been ready to focus on another major speech. Then again, they were about to see and hear the President of the United States, some for the first and only time.

Did Lincoln’s speaking style prevent the audience from appreciating the novelty of his appearance and the beauty of his words? Presidential assistant secretary John Hay remembered that Lincoln spoke “in a firm free way.” But a journalist from Cincinnati complained about his “sharp, unmusical, treble voice.”[11]

Then there is the issue of whether Lincoln read from a text or spoke from memory. Private secretary Nicolay maintained he “did not read from a manuscript.” A student in the audience, on the other hand, remembered that Lincoln kept a “hand on each side of the manuscript” while he spoke, though he “looked at it seldom.” And yet another eyewitness recalled that Lincoln “barely took his eyes” off the speech while he read it.[12]

There is the testimony from the Associated Press reporter, Joseph L. Gilbert, who said he was so transfixed by Lincoln’s “intense earnestness and depth of feeling” as he spoke that he stopped taking notes just to gaze “up at him.” He had to borrow Lincoln’s manuscript afterwards to fill in the gaps, inserting several interruptions for “applause” plus “long continued applause” at the conclusion. Did he really remember such outbursts of enthusiasm? Or did he add them charitably to an address that otherwise elicited no reaction at all? Whom do we believe?[13]

Stenographer-correspondents were both imprecise and partisan in the Civil War era. The real Lincoln-Douglas debates, to cite the most famous casualty of their work, are irrevocably lost to us, since all we have left are the Republican-commissioned transcripts that make Lincoln sound perfect and Douglas bombastic; and the Democratic-commissioned transcripts that make Lincoln sound hesitant and Douglas eloquent.

Political stenography had not advanced much toward non-partisanship by 1863. One Chicago shorthand reporter at Gettysburg, for example, heard Lincoln say “our poor attempts to add or detract,” not “our poor power” (emphasis added). And three New York papers heard Lincoln dedicate Americans not to “the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly advanced,” but the “refinished work” (emphasis added), as if he was a home-remodeling contractor. Another stenographer recorded not “we here highly resolve,” but “we here highly imbibe.” And one Democratic paper claimed that Lincoln could not even count; he had started his speech referring not to the events of “four score and seven years ago,” but to “four score and ten years ago” (emphasis added).[14]

There was more than sloppy stenography at work here. There was highly partisan stenography as well, just as in the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Thus, to no one’s surprise, the Illinois State Journal, the old pro-Lincoln paper from Springfield, reported that “immense applause” had greeted the President at Gettysburg. But a far less sympathetic observer reported “not a word, not a cheer, not a shout.”[15]

Which version of the audience reaction was correct? We may never know for sure. The truth is buried within the nineteenth-century tradition of partisan journalism. The question boils down to the credibility of the Republican versus the Democratic press.

That is why it seems so foolish that biographers have made so much of the fact that many of the newspapers commenting immediately on the Gettysburg Address failed to realize its greatness. In fact, it was Lamon who fueled this most stubborn of legends by insisting “without fear of contradiction that this famous Gettysburg speech was not regarded by . . . the press . . . as a production of extraordinary merit, nor was it commented on as such until after the death of its author.”[16]

Perhaps Lamon was thinking of one of the most frequently quoted criticisms from the Chicago Times:

The cheek of every American must tinge with shame as he reads the silly flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.

On the other hand, the rival Chicago newspaper, the Tribune, quickly appreciated, and announced, the importance of the speech, countering:

The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of the war.[17]

As genuine evidence of Lincoln’s performance at Gettysburg, however, both appraisals were in a sense totally insignificant. Of course, the Tribune predicted great things for the Gettysburg Address. They had been a pro-Lincoln paper since at least 1858, when they hired the stenographer who recorded the Republican version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and filled their pages daily with attacks on Douglas and praise of Lincoln. Why would they not cheer the speech at Gettysburg? They had cheered nearly every speech Lincoln ever made.

And of course the Chicago Times hated it. They hated Lincoln! They hated him when he ran against Douglas, charging that “the Republicans have a candidate for the Senate of whose bad rhetoric and horrible jargon they are ashamed.” And surely the Times had not grown fonder of Lincoln after his army closed the newspaper down in 1863—the same year as the Gettysburg Address—even if it was Lincoln who later countermanded the order. “Is Mr. Lincoln less refined than a savage?” the Times taunted in its comment on the address.[18]

Nor is it surprising that the Democratic Party newspaper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, declared: “We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the nation, we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of.” Those lines are probably the most frequently quoted by historians seeking to prove that the press, in general, did not appreciate the Gettysburg Address. Seldom is the paper’s political affiliation mentioned, only its ambiguous name: the Patriot and Union. And almost never are the first few lines of its review quoted, which seem far more revealing of its motives than a disdain for Lincoln’s literary style. “The President,” it began, “acted without sense and without constraint in a panorama that was gotten up more for the benefit of his party than for the glory of the nation and the honor of the dead.” For the benefit of his party! There, in a nutshell, is the Harrisburg Democratic Party newspaper’s grievance with the Gettysburg Address: to the Patriot and Union it represented Republican Party propaganda.[19]

In fact, the address elicited a number of prompt, rave reviews at the time it was delivered. They came from Republican papers like the Providence Journal, which pointed out: “The hardest thing in the world is to make a five minute’s speech. . . . Could the most elaborate, splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring, than those thrilling words?”[20]

It is true that the London Times did complain that the ceremony at Gettysburg was “rendered ludicrous by some of the luckless sallies of that poor President Lincoln.” But the London Times seldom praised Abraham Lincoln. Interestingly, a quote from the same review that several historians have used to illustrate the period press’s foolhardy dismissal of the Gettysburg Address—that it was “dull and commonplace”—has long been quoted inaccurately. The paper actually used those words to criticize not Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but Edward Everett’s.[21]

As for Everett, his own assessment, sent to Lincoln the day after the ceremonies, conceded: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Thus, even if we cling to the ultimate Gettysburg legend—that Lincoln himself thought he missed a golden opportunity on November 19—we can at least be satisfied that he knew better by November 20, the day he received Everett’s letter of praise and replied modestly that he was “pleased to know” that what he said “was not entirely a failure.”[22]

We probably owe the legend of Lincoln’s lack of enthusiasm for his own performance at Gettysburg almost entirely to Ward Hill Lamon, one of the most consistently undependable sources in the annals of Lincoln biography. It was Lamon who claimed that when Lincoln took his seat after the address, he confided sadly: “That speech won’t scour! It is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed.” And it was Lamon who added that when they returned to Washington, Lincoln repeated: “I tell you, Hill, that speech fell on the audience like a wet blanket. I am distressed about it. I ought to have prepared it with more care.”[23]

As historians Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher pointed out, however, the original personal notes from which he adapted this recollection show that it was Lamon who claimed the speech fell on the audience like a “wet blanket.” Lincoln himself never uttered the statement. Later, Lamon simply put his own words in Lincoln’s mouth. In short, we have no authentic, reliable reason to believe that Lincoln ever felt that he failed at Gettysburg.[24]

Of nearly equal importance, even if audience reaction was as disappointing as Lamon claimed, Lincoln knew that he was delivering the Gettysburg Address that day to two audiences: the relatively small crowd at the cemetery, whether it was 15,000 or 100,000, and the millions who would read the text in the press.

For several years Lincoln had perfected the art of delivering state papers and political messages through the newspapers. He made few formal speeches as president.  But he made sure that when he greeted special visitors with important remarks, they were quickly printed in the newspapers. Or if he wrote an important letter—like the one to Erastus Corning and other Albany, New York, Democrats defending his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus—they too were published for the benefit of other readers.

The Gettysburg Address would live because Lincoln made certain that it lived: by lending his transcript to the Associated Press; by writing additional copies for souvenir albums and charity auctions; by ensuring that it would be reprinted worldwide and praised at least in the Republican journals.

From the beginning, the Gettysburg Address would be recognized, and applauded, because the brilliant public relations strategist who made certain his remarks were widely read was also a consummate literary craftsman who enjoyed his finest hour during his two minutes at Gettysburg.

It is therefore fitting and proper to here highly resolve that Lincoln did indeed triumph at Gettysburg, not just in history, but on the very spot where he summoned all his great powers to re-consecrate a scene of death into an unforgettable metaphor for birth: a new birth of freedom.


[1] David Wills to Abraham Lincoln, November 2, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress; Harold Holzer, “‘Avoid Saying Foolish Things’: The Legacy of Lincoln’s Impromptu Oratory,” in James M. McPherson, ed., “We Cannot Escape History”: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995).

[2] Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 26.

[3] William E. Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg (New York: Peter Smith, 1950), 173.

[4] Louis A. Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration: “A New Birth of Freedom” (Fort Wayne, IN: Lincoln National Life Foundation, 1964), 61.

[5] Brooks, “Personal Reminiscences of Lincoln,” 565.

[6] Earl Schenck Miers, ed., Lincoln Day By Day: A Chronology, 1809–1865 (3 vols., Washington: Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission, 1960), 3:218–220; Philip N. Kunhardt, Jr., A New Birth of Freedom: Lincoln at Gettysburg (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1983), 65–66; Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, eds., Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 289.

[7] Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 7:16.

[8] Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration, 61. For a reproduction of the autograph copy—in two hands—of Lincoln’s farewell address to Springfield, see Stefan Lorant, Lincoln: A Picture Story of His Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), 119.

[9] Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 71.

[10] Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 75; Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration, 81–83; R. Gerald McMurtry, “Lincoln Rode Horseback in the Gettysburg Procession,” Lincoln Lore No. 1425 (November 1956), 4.

[11] Tyler Dennett, ed., Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1939), 121; Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration, 122; Harold Holzer, “A Few Appropriate Remarks,” American History Illustrated (November 1988), 20–22.

[12] Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 78; Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration, 122.

[13] Kunhardt, A New Birth of Freedom, 215. The AP text is reprinted in Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 261.

[14] For a fully annotated version of the various, conflicting texts, see The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 7:19–21; see also Chicago Times, November 23, 1863.

[15] Kunhardt, A New Birth of Freedom, 215–216; Benjamin Barondess, Three Lincoln Masterpieces (Charleston, WV: Education Foundation of West Virginia, 1954), 43.

[16] Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 201.

[17] Herbert Mitgang, ed., Lincoln as They Saw Him (New York: Rinehart & Co., 1956), 360; Warren, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Declaration, 146.

[18] Harold Holzer, ed., The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 13; Mitgang, Lincoln as They Saw Him, 360.

[19] Barton, Lincoln at Gettysburg, 114–115.

[20] Harold Holzer, “‘Thrilling Words’ or ‘Silly Remarks’: What the Press Said about the Gettysburg Address,” Lincoln Herald 90 (Winter 1988), 144–145.

[21] Mitgang, Lincoln as They Saw Him, 362–363.

[22] Edward Everett to Abraham Lincoln, November 20, 1863, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress; The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln 7:24.

[23] Dorothy Lamon Teillard, ed., Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 18471865 (2nd ed., Washington, DC, 1911), 175.

[24] Fehrenbacher and Fehrenbacher, eds., Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, 289.


Harold Holzer is the author, co-author, and editor of more than forty books on Abraham Lincoln, including most recently, Emancipating Lincoln: The Emancipation Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory (2012); Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860–1861 (2008); and Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President (2004). He is a Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, Senior Vice President for External Affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

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Discussion

very interesting, fact and fiction both..myth and reality. great fact checking and debunking


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