The Gettysburg Address and how history came to know (and argue over) its immortal words
Library of Congress, Alexander Gardner, Associated Press
It was the biggest assignment of Joseph Ignatius Gilbert's journalistic career — and he was in serious danger of blowing it.
On Nov. 19, 1863, the 21-year-old Associated Press freelancer was standing before a "rude platform" overlooking the still-ravaged battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa. Towering above him was an almost mythic figure: Abraham Lincoln.
By this time, Gilbert had been covering the president for two and a half long years of civil war. Three months earlier, he had written a dispatch about the Union rout of Gen. George Pickett from this very field, an event often called the "high-water mark of the Confederacy."
Lincoln had come to dedicate a portion of the battlefield — still strewn with equipment, clothing and horse skeletons — as a national cemetery. Gilbert was dutifully taking down the president's words in shorthand when something uncharacteristic happened.
He became star-struck.
"Fascinated by Lincoln's intense earnestness and depth of feeling, I unconsciously stopped taking notes," he would recall decades later, "and looked up at him just as he glanced from his manuscript with a faraway look in his eyes as if appealing from the few thousands before him to the invisible audience of countless millions whom his words were to reach."
Luckily for Gilbert, Lincoln graciously allowed his text to be copied while the ceremonies concluded. And "the press report was made from the copy," the AP man noted.
Brief as Lincoln's speech was, many newspaper reports paraphrased or outright butchered it. In his new book, "Writing the Gettysburg Address," Martin P. Johnson argues that the fledgling "wire service" played a key role in ensuring that most Americans experienced the true power and poetry of their president's words at a time when he desperately wanted to reach them.
"The Gettysburg Address was not necessarily going to be an important text, if the first version published had been such a truncated version," he says.
But 150 years later, the debate continues over exactly what Lincoln said that day — and why it matters.
"Four score and seven years ago ..."
The speech contains about 250 words. Today, a listener with a smartphone could polish it off in 10 tweets or simply post the raw video on YouTube.
But a century and a half ago, the news medium was a reporter taking notes with a pencil, most likely in shorthand.
Once finished, he would race to a telegraph office and hand over his dispatch to an operator, who would tap it out in Morse code. The story would travel to a newspaper office, where the series of dots and dashes were deciphered, then set in lead type.
For a great many papers, the source of that text was the AP, and its "agents" — men like Gilbert.
The goateed Gilbert was a "shorthand novice" in the state Senate at Harrisburg on Feb. 22, 1861, when he first heard the new president speak in the Pennsylvania capital. His dispatches appeared in the city's Evening Telegraph. As he moved on to The Philadelphia Press and AP, the young scribe would have other opportunities to report on "the care worn President whose shoulders, Atlas-like, were carrying the pillars of the Republic."
So Gilbert was an old hand at covering Lincoln when he joined the throngs assembling on Cemetery Hill in the fall of 1863.
"The battlefield, on that sombre autumn day, was enveloped in gloom," he wrote in a paper delivered at the 1917 convention of the National Shorthand Reporters' Association in Cleveland. "Nature seemed to veil her face in sorrow for the awful tragedy enacted there."
Lincoln was not even the keynote speaker that day; that honor fell to former U.S. Sen. Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours. Lincoln's address lasted barely two minutes.
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