Gettysburg Address Book is Fascinating - Robert Booker

July 22, 2014 — Print this Page

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 Knoxville News Sentinel
by Robert Booker

I read a lot of newspapers and a few books for information. It is not often that I am completely fascinated with a history book, but I just finished one that mesmerized me. The book by General Sessions Judge James L. Cotton, Jr. of Oneida, Tennessee, grabbed my attention and would not let it go. It is titled The Greatest Speech, Ever: The Remarkable Story of Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address. With a foreword by former Sen. Howard H. Baker, Jr., it is full of little-known information from start to finish.

It is a story in flashbacks of President Lincoln and what led him to the words of the Gettysburg Address and why he was not originally considered as a speaker for the occasion to dedicate the soldiers’ cemetery there in Pennsylvania. But Cotton said, “Those words - just 272 of them - breathed life into the Declaration of Independence, and have helped to shape the self-governing Republic that baptizes all of us as Americans. I hope the pages of this book will not only reveal how words can sculpt history, but will breathe life into our 16th president.”

He describes the battlefield at Gettysburg as a “blizzard of blood” where more than 50,000 soldiers died and a bullet hit a human being, on average, about every four seconds. People continued to ask what we were fighting for. To save the Union? To end slavery? The question was not answered until the speech at Gettysburg. When did the president write it? Was it scribbled on the back of an envelope? I couldn’t wait to get the answers, which were different from those that I learned back there in junior high school.

Like the great writer John Steinbeck, Cotton uses flashbacks to give background for the information he reveals. He mentions every road sign on the way to let the reader known where he is headed and what to expect. We learn that Lincoln was loaned the private rail car of John W. Garrett, president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, to take the trip. I did not know that Lincoln had insisted that William H. Johnson, a black servant and a confidante, was to be on the trip. All of his cabinet members, except for three, found excuses not to go to Gettysburg. Yet, after the event, everybody wanted to be associated with the success of the Gettysburg Address.

As the program got underway, Lincoln listened as the regrets were read from various dignitaries who gave excuses for why they could not attend. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase claimed to have duties in Washington that made his attendance “impossible.” Major Gen. George G. Meade had “more pressing” duties with his troops, and Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott could not attend because of his “infirmities.” Of course, Lincoln knew hogwash when he heard it.

After the invocation and some band music came the speaker for the occasion, Edward Everett, who was widely proclaimed as America’s best orator. At age 69 he still commanded lots of money for his speaking fees. That day, November 19, 1863, at Gettysburg, he spoke for two hours. Cotton says that Everett “was at the top of his game” and analyzes some of the speech in this book. It was well received by the audience, and Lincoln rose to compliment him and shake his hands. It seems that 20,000 people were transfixed. But the best was yet to come.

Poets like John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were invited, but they declined. So when Lincoln was called to speak after sitting there for three hours, he took his stovepipe hat from his lap, and in two minutes made the most famous speech in history.


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