They Buried the Lede: New Book Looks at Press Coverage of ‘Gettysburg Address’

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By: Greg Mitchell

It’s long been known that President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg” address in November, 1863, was not recognized as a classic right away — some reporters at the time could barely even hear him. But it wen this far: The Steubenville (Ohio) Weekly Herald, after mentioning the other speakers, added: “President Lincoln was there, too.”

The nugget is included in the new scholarly study, “The Gettysburg Gospel” (Simon & Shuster), written by Gabor Boritt, director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.

Judging from a review by Janet Maslin in today’s New York Times, the book often looks at the press angle. For one thing, it describes his trip to Pennsylvania from Washington, D.C., on a well appointed train with “friendly reporters” who chose not to describe his lavish mode of travel.

The book also looks at how the press misquoted the address at the tiime — with The Centralia (Pa.) Sentinel quoting the opening as “Ninety years ago” instead of “four score and seven” — and threw criticism the president’s way on the editorial pages.

How did The New York Times cover it at the time?

Using its Web site’s new archives search function, which can pull up entire articles going way back, we find that the front-page story, appearing Nov. 20, 1863, came topped with the usual multi-deck headline, under “The Heroes of July.” Mention of any speeches didn’t come until the fifth deck, and even there the president failed to get star billing: “Oration by Hon. Edward Everett — Speeches of President Lincoln, Mr. Seward, and Governor Seymour.”

The article, which carried no byline, led with a brief overview, then reprinted the entire opening prayer. It mentioned Everett’s oration and said the complete text could be found on page 2. The sun broke through the clouds, it noted, to shine on this “magnificent spectacle.”

The reporter listed the guests on the platform, before dryly observing: “The President then delivered the following dedicatory speech.” Since it was so short — half the length of the prayer — it was reprinted in full, with half a dozen parenthetical notations of “applause” with “long continued applause” noted at the end. So much for the urban legend that few in the crowd could hear the speech or were so disappointed they did not respond at all.

However, the reporter did not offer any words of praise or any indication that the speech was anything special.

After reprinting the governor’s address and attending to a few details, the article closed on an odd note, revealing that the president returned to Washington by train but that many others were left stranded at the train depot and would have to make use of Gettysburg’s “meager” accommodations for the night.

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