Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg: the only known signature of Lincoln from the dedication of the National Cemetery, 19 November 1863.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is universally recognized as the greatest speech in American history and is certainly a candidate for the greatest speech in all human history. And yet little documentary evidence of its delivery during the consecration exercises exists: a single photograph of the President among a mass of other speakers and attendees, a few contemporary newspapers notices, some brief entries in the diary of John Hay, and the later reminiscences of John G. Nicolay and others present at the ceremony.
No example of writing connecting Lincoln to this most momentous event of his presidency seems to exist apart from these precious pages from an autograph album. (There is no consensus that either the Nicolay or Hay copies of the Gettysburg Address were actually written on 19 November; the other three holographs of the text—the Everett, Bancroft, and Bliss copies—are known to be later souvenir transcriptions.)
The idea of a National Cemetery at Gettysburg developed in the early aftermath of the bloody battle that ravaged the small Pennsylvania town. The genesis of the project is best told by David Wills, a young and successful local lawyer, who was responsible for planning both the building of the cemetery and its dedication. Wills's "Account of the Origin of the Undertaking and of the Arrangement of the Cemetery Grounds," appears as an introduction to the pamphlet publication of Address of Hon. Edward Everett, at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, 19th November, 1863, with the Dedicatory Speech of President Lincoln (Boston, 1864):
"A few days after the terrific Battle of Gettysburg, His Excellency A. G. Curtin, Governor of the State of Pennsylvania, hastening to the relief of the sick and wounded soldiers, visited the battle-field, and the numerous hospitals in and around Gettysburg, for the purpose of perfecting the arrangements for alleviating the sufferings and ministering to the wants of the wounded and dying. His official duties soon requiring his return to Harrisburg, he authorized and appointed David Wills, Esq., of Gettysburg, to act as his special agent in this matter.
"In traversing the battle-field, the feelings were shocked and the heart sickened at the sights that presented themselves at every step. The remains of our brave soldiers, from the necessary haste with which they were interred, in many instances were but partially covered with earth, and, indeed, in some instances were left wholly unburied. Other sights, too shocking to be described, were occasionally seen. These appearances presented themselves promiscuously over the fields of arable land for miles around, which would, of necessity, be farmed over in a short time. The graves, where marked at all, were only temporarily so, and the marks were liable to be obliterated by the action of the weather. Such was the spectacle witnessed on going over the battle-field,—a field made glorious by victory achieved through the sacrifice of the lives of thousands of brave men, whose bodies and graves were in such exposed condition. And this, too, on Pennsylvania soil! The idea, accordingly, suggested itself of taking measures to gather these remains together, and bury them decently and in order in a cemetery."
As chairman of the organizing committee, Wills arranged to purchase land on which the opposing armies fought and, after securing the support of the governors of other states whose volunteers had died there, he engaged William Saunders, a famous landscape architect, to design the cemetery. Wills persuaded the celebrated orator Edward Everett to deliver the principal address at the dedication ceremonies, and arranged for all other elements of the program as well. It was Wills who invited President Lincoln to take a role as well, sending a formal letter on 2 November, although the subject was almost certainly broached with the President earlier:
"The several States having soldiers in the Army of the Potomac, who were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg, or have since died at the various hospitals which were established in the vicinity, have procured grounds on a prominent part of the Battle Field for a Cemetery, and are having the dead removed to them and properly buried. These Grounds will be Consecrated and set apart to this sacred purpose, by appropriate Ceremonies, on Thursday, the 19th instant. Hon Edward Everett will deliver the Oration. I am authorized by the Governors of the different States to invite you to be present, and participate in these Ceremonies, which will doubtless be very imposing and solemnly impressive. It is the desire that, after the Oration, You, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks. It will be a source of great gratification to the many widows and orphans that have been made almost friendless by the Great Battle here, to have you here personally; and it will kindle anew in the breasts of the Comrades of these brave dead, who are now in the tented field or nobly meeting the foe in the front, a confidence that they who sleep in death on the Battle Field are not forgotten by those highest in Authority; and they will feel that, should their fate be the same, their remains will not be uncared for. We hope you will be able to be present to perform this last solemn act to the Soldier dead on this Battle Field."
Lincoln was not at all certain that he would be able to attend the dedication, and Secretary of State Seward was prepared to stand in for the President if needed. But ultimately Lincoln realized that he had to attend. The dedication ceremony would allow him to demonstrate that the fallen were not forgotten and to comfort the "widows and orphans" to whom Wills had alluded. The setting would also permit him to make the case for the dire necessity of continuing the war. And on a pragmatic political level—which Lincoln never lost sight of—he would soon be facing a difficult re-election campaign. He was fully aware that no United States President has been elected to a second term since Andrew Jackson more than three decades earlier. He was also aware that Pennsylvania would be one of the most crucial states for his campaign. So Lincoln boarded a train for Gettysburg on 18 November, spending the night (with other honored guests) at Wills's home. The following day he delivered the brief speech which has become a national scripture.
Some 15,000 persons were present. Wills recalled that "The general public were invited to be present and participate in these solemn exercises, and special invitations were sent to the President and Vice-President of the United States and the members of the Cabinet,—to Major-General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, and, through him, to the officers and privates of that army which had fought so valiantly, and gained such a memorable victory on the Gettysburg battle-field. ... The occasion was further made memorable by the presence of a large number of representatives from the army and navy, of the Secretary of State of the United States, the Ministers of France and Italy, the French Admiral, and other distinguished foreigners, and several members of Congress, also of the Governors of a large number of the States interested. ..."
The presence at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony of all of the signers of these album leaves is confirmed, explicitly or implicitly, by Wills's description.
The first leaf is signed by the President, by Lincoln's former Secretary of War, by the Secretary of State, and by the Governor of Pennsylvania:
"Simon Cameron | Penna."
"William H. Seward | Auburn"
"A. G. Curtin | Gettysburg | Nov 19- 1863"
All four of these men were seated on the main speakers' platform for the dedication of the National Cemetery.
The second leaf is signed by one of Lincoln's secretaries, by the American-born Minister from France, by the Admiral commanding the French Naval Division of the Gulf and North America, and by an Italian Army Captain:
"John Hay | November 19. 1863"
The third leaf is signed by the Minister from Italy, by one of the Union generals who fought at Gettysburg, by the Governor of Maryland, and by Lincoln's other private secretary:
"Comt. Joseph Bertinatti | Minister from Italy"
"A. Doubleday | Major Genl Vol."
A. W. Bradford | 19 Nov. 1863"
Jno. G. Nicolay | Nov. 19th 1863."
The fourth leaf is signed by a second Union general who saw action at Gettysburg:
"Geo Sykes | Maj Genl | U.S.V."
If these album leaves were not signed right at the platform for the dedication ceremony, then it is most likely that the signatures were obtained at the Gettysburg railroad station following the dedication. Lincoln departed Washington at about noon on 18 November, stopping briefly in Baltimore and arriving at Gettysburg about 5:00 in the afternoon. He spent the night at the home of David Wills and appeared in public only to make a few brief remarks to the clamoring crowds. The morning of the dedication ceremony, he joined the procession to the cemetery about 11:00; he was then on the speakers' platform until about 2:30 and afterwards attended a lecture and a reception before boarding a train back to the District of Columbia about 7:00 that evening. There would have been very little chance of catching Lincoln and all of the other signatories except at the train station—and they were all at the train station. Indeed, it is probable that these autographs were obtained by a member of the President's travelling party because it is unlikely that anyone else would have had access to so many persons of prominence.
Lincoln travelled on a special four-car train provided by John W. Garrett, the president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. It is known from newspaper accounts and John Hays's diary that the presidential travelling party included Seward, Hay, Nicolay, Mercier, Reynaud, and Isola. Governor Bradford undoubtedly joined the President's special train when it stopped at Baltimore.
A second exclusive train also carried notable public figures to and from Gettysburg. This was denominated the "Governors' train" and originated in Harrisburg, carrying Andrew Curtin and other state governors; Curtin's powerful in-state Republican rival, Simon Cameron, and a number of generals, including Abner Doubleday and George Sykes.
In his Gettysburg Gospel, Gabor Boritt quotes and comments on a 23 November 1863 report of the Gettysburg dedication published in the Cincinnati Daily Commercial: "Only days after the consecration, a Western reporter wrote that there had been many commemorations of the war, but never before had the nation showed its 'gushing gratitude toward the brave fallen of the rank and file. ... This is as it should be. Here was fought the great battle of the war.' Those who came in November would never forget 'this beautiful and for all time to come, renowned city of the brave dead, who with their lives saved this country.' ... The Gospel of Gettysburg was born. American memory was being created" (p. 129). These four page are the only autograph relic of Abraham Lincoln's participation in the nation-making commemoration at Gettysburg.
Signature ("A. Lincoln") on a leaf removed from an autograph album used to gather signatures at the Dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery, 19 November 1863, one of four leaves disbound from the same album (each ca. 7 5/8 x 5 1/8 in.; 194 x 130 mm, on wove paper, with gilt edges), bearing a total of thirteen signatures from dignitaries who attended the dedication ceremonies, dated 19 November 1863 by five of the signatories and further marked "Gettysburg" by Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin; a few light stains, one leaf irregularly torn at inner margin.
See Gabor Boritt, The Gettysburg Gospel (2006) and Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992)