President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) on the platform before delivering the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, at the dedication of the National Cemetery. In the vast crowd was a wounded Buckeye captain Azor H. Nickerson. National Archives.
Background post: Wounded Ohio soldier boards the governor’s special train at Hanover Junction.
Today we pick up Captain Nickerson’s narrative of his excursion to see the dedication ceremony. It’s just one of dozens of eyewitness accounts of Lincoln’s speech, but it’s one of the best commentaries.
“At the dedication ceremonies on the following day, November 19, 1863, I had a seat on the platform within a few feet of the speakers, and could hear not only every word, but could mark every expression on the face of Americas most polished orator, Edward Everett, as he delivered that masterly oration, and could see every lineament in the sad, earnest face of Mr. Lincoln as he pronounced his immortal Dedication.
Mr. Everett’s personality was profoundly impressive. He was as straight as an arrow, tall, portly, and faultlessly dressed. Like many others of his time he wore an evening suit, the coat of which displayed his figure to advantage. Crowning all was that massive head covered with snow-white hair, which was in striking contrast with the great dark eyes that flashed from out clear-cut, classic features that were innocent of the semblance of beard or mustache.
I have not seen nor read the oration for more than twenty years, and yet many of his periods were at that time so impressed upon my memory that I cannot forget them. In closing one of them he said: ‘Standing on these heights; looking on these scenes;’ here he turned and looked, first at Round Top on the left and then at Wolf’s and Culp’s Hills on the right, at the same time raising both hands slowly and impressively as high as he could, as if reaching toward the heavens for inspiration I feel how utterly inadequate words are to express the emotions that are swelling in my heart! Toward the end of the sentence great tears suffused his eyes and rolled down his cheeks as his hands fell as if in utter helplessness. It was certainly a grand oration; and when finished it seemed as though the subject had been exhausted and there was absolutely nothing more to be said.
When, therefore, Mr. Lincoln arose in obedience to the announcement that the President would now pronounce the dedication, everyone felt sorry for him. To say that Mr. Lincoln arose, can only be appreciated by those who have been near him when he got up to speak; but he had never before seemed to me to be so tall as he did on this occasion. He appeared to continue to arise as it were, until when he finally stood up I thought that he was the tallest and most awkward man I had ever seen.
There has been considerable difference of opinion among those who were present, as to whether or not he had any notes of this, undoubtedly the greatest speech of his life. My own impressions, whether correct or not, were received then, and have never since been changed by anything I have seen or heard on the subject. I think he had a card or a strip of paper the size of a visiting card in his hand. He did not, however, look at or refer to it in any way.
Others, too, have differed as to the immediate effect of his remarks. In this, also, I give the impressions received at the time, which were also identical with those of all with whom I spoke. I thought then, and still think, it was the shortest, grandest speech, oration, sermon, or what you please to call it, to which I ever listened. It was the whole matter in a nutshell, delivered distinctly and impressively, so that all in that vast concourse could hear him.
My own emotions may perhaps be imagined when it is remembered that he was facing the spot where only a short time before we had had our death grapple with Pickett’s men, and he stood almost immediately over the place where I had lain and seen my comrades torn in fragments by the enemy’s cannonballs.
Think, if you please, how these words fell upon my ears: ‘…We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
If at that moment the Supreme Being had appeared with an offer to undo my past life; give back to me a sound body, free from the remembrance even of sufferings past, and the imminence of those that must necessarily embitter all the years to come, I should have indignantly spurned the offer, such was the effect upon me of this immortal Dedication.
And even now, when the deeds performed on that field are rapidly becoming traditions, the mention of which requires an apology; when the brilliant hopes of the living actors in the tragedy have become faded disappointments; their promised rewards turned to dead-sea fruits; when they have nothing to show for them but maimed and shattered bodies, meaningless titles, and empty honors, there is still comfort for them in the great Martyr’s prophecy, that history will not forget to record what they did in the way of heroic achievement upon the battlefield of Gettysburg.
Scribner’s, Vol. 14, No. 1, July 1893.
“… those who here gave their lives that that nation might live…” Dead Union soldiers at Gettysburg, photographed by Timothy H. O’Sullivan about July 5-6, 1863. The exact location is unknown, but a recent theory postulates these were men of the XI Corps on a plateau just east of Cemetery Hill. Some of the deceased in this photo may have been re-interred in the National Cemetery not far from where Lincoln delivered his immortal speech.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-B8184-7964-A DLC. No known restrictions on publication.
Captain Nickerson led a controversial life post-war, sending his wife and daughter off to Europe and then claiming she had abandoned him. He filed for divorce and married her dressmaker. When his wife returned from Europe, she filed to annul the divorce.
It got messier.
The legal case Nickerson vs. Nickerson eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Army, embarrassed by the conduct of the officer, moved to dismiss him. In what believe was a deal, Nickerson was allowed to leave the country and move to Canada. For more info, click here and scroll down.