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5.0 out of 5 stars

on 31 May 2010
"The Gettysburg Gospel" tells the route that Lincoln's Gettysburg address followed to become the preeminent speech of American political history. Author Gabor Boritt explains the background which led to the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, how Lincoln came to give the speech and its shifting place in the canon of American Freedom.

Contemporary visitors to Gettysburg may fail to appreciate the horrors which still afflicted the Gettysburg landscape as the preparations for the dedication progressed. The battle was in early July. As the armies retreated they left behind thousands of wounded and many more human and equine corpses which had been hastily buried in shallow graves around the battlefields, to say nothing of abandoned material. After the decision was made to establish a National Cemetery to honor the Union dead, contracts had to be let to find, disinter and rebury the dead. An interesting aside is that one of the workers was a black man who had to avoid racial prejudice by having a white man front his bid. Reburial had to be deferred until the heat of summer had passed. Initially aiming for October, the date had to be rescheduled to November to accommodate the schedule of the featured speaker, Edward Everett. By dedication time some of the bodies had been reburied but Gettysburg was not really equipped to handle an influx of visitors.

The writing of the address has been the subject of endless speculation. Was it really written on the back of an envelope while riding on a train? Author Boritt examines the evidence derived from records of others and Lincoln's own notes. He also compares concepts in the speech with earlier statements by Lincoln.

On the train trip to Gettysburg Lincoln was joined by a collection of politicians, reporters, and other personalities. The triumphal passage through Baltimore on this, the longest trip which Lincoln made during the war, presented a favorable contrast to his 1861clandestine transit through Baltimore under threat of assassination. In this part of the book Boritt highlights Lincoln's careful cultivation of the press, with whom he enjoyed favorable relations.

Dedication day is presented in terms of the attendees, the reception by the crowd, the principal address by Edward Everett and the "appropriate remarks" delivered by the President. I value a book which makes me want to know more. As Everett's speech is described, I developed a desire to know what he actually said. Fortunately the speech is included at the end of the book. Lincoln, in contrast to Everett, did not release an official copy of the speech and no reliable transcript was made. Initially at least, there was a lack of consensus about what Lincoln actually said.

The rest of the story follows two paths. One is the trail of copies of the address written in Lincoln's hand. Lincoln wrote some copies which were donated to charity leaving some uncertainty as to which copy was actually held by Lincoln as he delivered the oration.

The second path dealt with the response to the speech. Considered by some to be the start of Lincoln's reelection bid, unusual in an era of one term presidents, the initial response was partisan. Highlighted and praised by Republican papers, it was ignored, trivialized or criticized by Democratic ones. The response over the longer term varied as the themes of the war waxed and waned. Delivered as a war speech to rouse Northern efforts, it would rank below the Emancipation Proclamation during periods and among groups for whom the end of slavery of primary importance. As reconciliation between North and South occupied the attention of the nation, the Address rose in importance as a tribute to both sides, both of whom were then viewed as having fought honorably. Eventually the Emancipation faded in the public consciousness while the Gettysburg Address became the speech for the Ages.

As readers of my Amazon reviews are aware, I have studied Lincoln extensively. This book definitely brings something new that I had not picked up in other reading. The background leading up to the dedication brings to our attention the horrors of the war. The trip to Gettysburg highlights Lincoln the master politician. The post-speech section of the book helps the reader appreciate how the memory of the Civil War has served and shaped our nation in the years since the guns went silent. As we approach the Sesquicentennial of the War and struggle with its significance, it is important to realize that prior generations waged the same struggles and their solutions have not been uniform. This book will help us work out our own solutions for our time.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 November 2015
With the passage of time, the Battle of Gettysburg of July 1 -- 3, 1863) and President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address of November 19, 1863, dedicating the Soldier's National Cemetery have become American icons. They help define for many people the basic values of our country. In his book "The Gettysburg Gospel: The Speech Nobody Knows" Professor Gabor Boritt offers a detailed account of the Gettysburg Address, including its background, reception, and meaning. As Boritt shows, the Gettysburg Address has become a statement for Americans of "who we are" as a people. His book illuminates the Gettysburg Address and, through it, he illuminates the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War itself. Boritt is Professor of Civil War studies and director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. He has written extensively on the Civil War.

In the opening chapters of the book, Boritt emphasizes the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, including the great suffering of the many wounded soldiers left behind to be cared for after the Battle. He discusses the decision to set aside a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for the Union dead and the invitation extended to Lincoln to speak at the dedication of the cemetery. The book includes substantial discussion of contested issues in prior studies of Lincoln's speech including the circumstances of the composition of the various drafts. In great detail, Boritt discusses Lincoln's train trip to Gettysburg, the celebrations in the town during the evening before the now famous dedication, and the mixed reception the speech received when it was delivered.

But these discussions, interesting as they are, do not form the major theme of the book. Boritt shows how the historical record is confused and inconclusive, in many respects, about the speech and its reception. The full significance of the speech became appreciated only about 20 years later, after the end of Reconstruction. Boritt points out, insightfully, that Lincoln's address had the aim of furthering the Union war effort by justifying the need of the terrible sacrifice of life that had occurred already at Gettysburg and elsewhere and that would need to occur elsewhere to realize the war aims of the United States. Boritt also has valuable things to say in contrasting the reception of the Emancipation Proclamation with that of the Gettysburg Address. The Proclamation was regarded as Lincoln's achievement while the Reconstruction period was underway. With the end of Reconstruction, the Gettysburg Address claimed greater public attention, both due to its poetic eloquence and to the interpretation it was given by some, due to its stark, abstract character, in promoting sectional reconciliation and national unity rather than Reconstruction. Throughout the book, Boritt discusses well the relationship between Reconstruction and Reconciliation in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Among the things I liked best about Boritt's book was the detailed attention it gives to the speech of Edward Everett, which discussed the history of the battle, the role women played after the battle in taking care of the wounded, and the need for sectional reconciliation following the conflict. (Everett's speech is given in full as an appendix to the book.) Boritt discusses as well American art and sculpture and about how Lincoln is depicted, both with respect to the Emancipation Proclamation and with respect to the Gettysburg Address. Boritt gives great attention to the religious aspect of the Address -- as it shows Lincoln moving towards a theism but not towards a denominational religion. (Lincoln's movement might reflect an important religious attitude in the United States as a whole.) He also discusses the role of the Gettysburg Address in what many scholars have referred to as America's Civil Religion -- its sense of itself and its purpose -- and American nationalism. Boritt also sees the Gettysburg Address as a precursor of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

The book includes an excellent annotated bibliography of the Battle of Gettysburg and of Lincoln's speech which will be useful to readers wanting to explore these matters further. The book beautifully combines close factual detail with meditations on the lasting meaning and significance of the Gettysburg Address. The book will be of great interest to readers wanting to think about and expand their understanding of Lincoln's great speech.

Robin Friedman
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