DL Fowler's Blog

Gettysburg Address – the rest of the story

Gettysburg Address

We shortchange ourselves when we study history as discreet events, dislodged from the context of what happens around them. That’s especially true when we divorce those incidents from the personal circumstances of those who put historical events in motion.

In my research for Lincoln Raw, a biographical novel, and the sequel now in progress, I’ve discovered that the Gettysburg Address narrative we all know is only a tiny piece of a fascinating human story.

The full story of the Gettysburg Address probably began two generations before Abraham Lincoln was born on a farm in colonial Virginia with the death of another Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president’s grandfather … but let’s fast forward to two years before Lincoln stood on a wooden platform in a newly dedicated cemetery for soldiers who gave their lives in the American Civil War.

October 21, 1861, Colonel Ned Baker, one of Lincoln’s closest friends—the man after whom he named is second son, the man who introduced him at his inauguration, the United States Senator whom Lincoln wouldn’t appoint to his cabinet for fear of losing his most trusted ally in Congress—died in combat at the Battle of Balls Bluff. Lincoln was all too aware that the war was triggered by his election as President. Deep in his conscience, Lincoln fretted that Ned Baker’s blood was on his hands.

February 1862 found Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willy—the second of his sons to die in childhood. He died of fever that resulted from poor sanitation conditions in the nation’s capital. Lincoln knew that the war was siphoning off funds and legislative energies that could have prevented not only Willy’s death but the deaths of many others. During that same month, Congress was investigating Lincoln’s wife for treason.

December 26, 1862 is the date 38 Dakota Sioux were hanged in accordance with death warrants signed by Lincoln. He was originally presented with 303 death sentences, but commuted all but 39. One of the 39 was given a reprieve. The president spent months agonizing over all 303 cases before winnowing them down to the ‘most egregious’ offenders.

July 1-3, 1863 the Battle of Gettysburg raged at the cost of 51,112 casualties—the most to date for the war. The first general office to die in the battle was John Reynolds, whom Lincoln had recently promoted to the rank of Major General. July 2, on her way back to the White House from the Soldiers Home, Mrs. Lincoln suffers a head injury in an attack on the carriage in which she was riding. Lincoln, himself, was the intended target.

September 21, 1863 Lincoln is distraught over news that his favorite brother-in-law, Confederate General Benjamin Hardin Helm, has died in battle.

November 9, 1863 Lincoln attends a performance at Ford’s Theatre for a brief respite from the pressures of office. The lead actor is John Wilkes Booth.

November 18, 1963 Lincoln and his party leave by special train for Gettysburg, PA. Mrs. Lincoln stays behind with young Tad who is suffering from typhoid—reminiscent of the disease that killed Willy less than two years earlier. Lincoln suffers from headaches and fever as the train approaches its destination.

November 19, 1863 Lincoln’s symptoms worsen as he visits the site where General Reynolds was killed. The symptoms continue to worsen as he delivers his address and sits on the platform gazing at the fresh graves of men who died in ‘Lincoln’s War’ and he is able to view in the distance the site where Reynolds fell.

On the train ride back to Washington, Lincoln’s symptoms become debilitating. His valet Willie Johnson who accompanied him from Springfield to the White House, and who became a confidant, tends to the ailing president. Johnson applies cold towels to Lincoln’s forehead to temper the fever. When Lincoln returns to home, doctors treat him for smallpox and quarantine him in his office.

January 12, 1864 Willie Johnson suffers from smallpox, possibly as a result of attending to Lincoln during his illness.

January 28, 1864 Willie Johnson dies. Whether through a nagging sense that he was responsible, or on the strength of their warm relationship—likely both—Lincoln helps close his deceased servant’s affairs.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is a richer story than I had ever imagined. It was not one of the greatest speeches of all time simply because he was a wise man and an accomplished orator. Its greatness rose out of a heart refined by a lifetime of trials that, any one of which, would have killed most of us.

What are your thoughts about the context of events around Lincoln’s Gettysburg address? Please share your thoughts. I enjoy hearing from you.

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  1. Political Theater | DL Fowler's Blog said, on November 21, 2016 at 2:43 PM

    […] stage, and were separated from the actors only by a railing. As a side note, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address only ten days later, while suffering from a mild case of smallpox. Most likely, by the time he […]

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