Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America

ISBN: 0671867423
ISBN 13: 9780671867423
By: Garry Wills

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About this book

The power of words has rarely been given a more compelling demonstration than in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was asked to memorialize the gruesome battle. Instead he gave the whole nation "a new birth of freedom" in the space of a mere 272 words. His entire life & previous training & his deep political experience went into this, his revolutionary masterpiece. By examining both the address & Lincoln in their historical moment & cultural frame, Wills breathes new life into words we thought we knew, & reveals much about a president so mythologized but often misunderstood. Wills shows how Lincoln came to change the world & to effect an intellectual revolution, how his words had to & did complete the work of the guns, & how Lincoln wove a spell that hasn't yet been broken.Key to Brief CitationsPrologue1 Oratory of the Greek revival2 Gettysburg & the culture of death 3 The transcendental declaration 4 Revolution in thought5 Revolution in style App 1 What Lincoln said: the textApp 2 Where he said it: the siteApp 3 Four funeral orations A. By Everett B. By Pericles C. By Gorgias D. The Gettysburg address: 1. Spoken text 2. Final textAcknowledgmentsNotesIndex to the Gettysburg AddressIndex to Other Major Lincoln TextsName IndexPhoto Credits

Reader's Thoughts


A fresh look at some of the most famous words spoken in American history. I've read dozens of books on Lincoln and each time I come away more amazed at his unique ability to write, speak, and think with such clarity and eloquence. Wills really brings this home and studies these most famous words of Lincoln's in a new way.Very interesting read, particularly in the analyzation of the style and format of the speech. I thought that chapter was especially well done.This book is a must for the serious, or casual, amateur scholar who wants to know as much as they can about (in my opinion) our most fascinating President.

Greg Miller

For the person on the street this can be a heavy-duty read. To draw the reader in, the first few pages are inspiring and light enough for a general readership. The story is fascinating, explaining the circumstances surrounding Lincoln's invitation to dedicate the cemetery at Gettysburg. It recounts in detail the sociology of the cemetery in the 1840s to the end Victorian age. He also explains declamation who the top rock stars of that age were and compares the greatest speeches of all time. For the lover of history books, the Civil War, this book is a gem. Other history books do not take the time to detail this historic event and Wills deconstructs the speech and the circumstances under which it was delivered.This is a 5-star for historians, poly sci majors (includes me) and Civil War buffs. For people who would only like to come away with a great understanding of their country's history, in the sense of a patriotic read, this is a 4-star. Wills thoroughly explains how the speech is as much a cornerstone of our democracy as is the Declaration of Independence. (The Constitution diminishes importance in these discussions)As a casual read, this is a 3-star, but that's not the intent of the book. The casual reader would do no personal damage to themselves to learn about the underpinnings of their country.To learn, to enjoy and, in my case, to ration the enjoyment to stretch it out, I would recommend this book to anyone. Ths is how history is meant to be learned - through enjoyment.


Okay, no one throw rocks at me yet. I picked up this book with high, high hopes. After all, I think it even won a pulitzer prize. The prologue was well-written and interesting, and then... it sunk. I started reading the first chapter and was bored to tears. A whole chapter on the breakdown of the ancient Greek style of speaking? I skimmed over to chapter 2 and didn't make it through that one either. So now it's lying neglected somewhere in our apartment. If I have dismissed this book way too soon and am missing out on great things, please tell me! I'm willing to give it another try if someone will vouch for it. Otherwise, Goodwill is about to get a new book!


Wills evokes the stink of the corpses, some barely covered at the time of this historic dedication:A nurse shuddered at the all-too-visible "rise and swell of human bodies" in these furrows war had plowed.... Householders had to plant around the bodies in their fields and gardens, or brace themselves to move the rotting corpses to another place. Soon these uneasy graves were being rifled by relatives looking for their dead -- reburying other bodies that they turned up, even more hastily (and less adequately) than had the first disposal crews. Three weeks after the battle, a prosperous Gettysburg banker, David Wills, reported to Pennsylvania's Governor Curtin: "In many distances arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude and my attention has been directed to several places where the hogs are actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them."War is smelly!Here is one sentence from the Prologue:Lincoln was still wearing a mourning band on his hat for his dead son.(That's on the day of the Gettysburg Address.) 48,000 men died in the battle -- at least -- and Lincoln was grieving for his son Willie!Wills brilliantly rehabilitates Edward Everett, the main speaker at Gettysburg, who is often ridiculed by historians. Lincoln at Gettysburg explains what a two-hour speech meant in 1863. (It was essentially a TV miniseries.) Americans were much less visual then; they liked listening to smart guys talking. And it was logical that Everett spoke so much longer than Lincoln; he delivered the "Oration," whereas Lincoln, on the program, is credited with "Dedicatory Remarks." Everett's performance freed Lincoln to speak in a telegraphic style, without mentioning slavery or the name of the battle.This book also expansively describes Victorian cemeteries. They expressed a spiritual environmentalism, plus a re-paganization ofChristian culture. It all comes out of Romanticism:As with most romantic developments, Rousseau had pioneered this communion with nature as an opening onto other worlds. In his Musings of a Lonely Rambler (Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire), he told how he lost the sense of a division between himself and the things he impinged on. He flowed out to the world, and it flowed in. He compared this to the bliss he felt on recovering consciousness after being knocked out in an accident. To recover such "transcendings" of himself, he practiced techniques of autohypnosis -- rhythmic walking, "a regular and gentle motion without jolt or interruption," or the contemplation of waves whose "flux and reflux, and continued sound neither swelling or ceasing," created interior movements as gentle and suggestive as the water's.Rousseau invented mystic French meditation!


I picked this book up at a small private book store in St. Augustine, Florida - do they have small book stores anymore? - and hoped it would be good.It was more than good. The research for the book is excellent. I was most impressed with that aspect.Had expected to see a rehash of the day at the cemetery, the repeating of the words, how Lincoln did NOT write the speech on an envelope on the way to Gettysburg. It was none of that.Rather it was a fascinating insight into Lincoln's thought process and how over time it evolved, as well as what and whom influenced him during that process. I came away finding Lincoln even more complex than I thought before reading the book.Lincoln's love of words, the language and how they influence others was made very clear in the book. Lincoln was a poet, albeit only average, but loved to compare with his private secretary John Hay who was poet laureate in his class at Brown.Lincoln and Hay developed a father son relationship over the five years Hay was one of his secretaries.The term "government of the people, of the people and for the people originated in writings of Theodore Park - a transdentalist. I came away after reading this book more convinced that after Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln was the most intellectual president we have had. Lincoln memorized a book of algorithms. He memorized many of Shakespeare's plays, as well as many of the parts in those plays.His speech at Gettysburg ran about 2.5 minutes vs 2 hours by the featured speaker Edward Everett. Everett asked for a personal copy of Lincoln's speech shortly after the dedication at the cemetery and wrote Lincoln saying that he hoped he should flatter himself that he had come as close to the central meaning of the occasion in two hours as Lincoln did in two minutes.The speech was a defining departure from the old way of long speeches to the more concise and shorter speeches. Excellent book & a great addition to my library.


Garry Wills has written 189 pages and another 100 or so pages of appendices and notes about a speech of 272 words. It's formidable and at times dry but it's thorough. He discusses: Lincoln's mentors and influences; the displacement of Roman allusion by the Greek Revival movement at Lincoln's time; the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as they relate to the Gettysburg address; detailed rhetoric analyis of the words, structure, and clauses of the speech- to name a few. There's a discussion on cemetery design and landscaping during the 19th Century. Lincoln loved words and saw them as weapons. He was a word nerd and what he achieved with his remarks was transformational. He wasn't even the key speaker for the event. The most popular speaker of the time, the President of Harvard talked for two hours and nobody remembers what he said. Lincoln spoke for a few minutes and his words are memorized by school children. This book will tell you more than you want to know but there's so much we don't know about Lincoln and how he came to write this masterpiece. Be prepared to learn much but be prepared for a slow and excruciating read at times.

Evan Brandt

About halfway through.Some very interesting arguments about Lincoln's view of the Constitution and, more particularly, of the Declaration as a formative founding document.An interesting premise well-argued.Wills makes the case that Lincoln knew what he was doing when he gave the address -- appropriate within the cemetery fad of the time -- and re-cast the war in a conceptual framework that was testing the experiment begun by the founders.He does spend some time disputing other interpretation that I am not familiar with, so that was a bit annoying but I understand that was probably one of the reasons the book was written.Anyway, I have shied away from Civil War history because there is so much material and still so much contention surrounding this.But, having just visited Gettysburg, this was a nice way to dip my toe in the water.


Some time ago, it suddenly came to me that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was in large part derived from Pericles' funeral oration, as reported by Thucydides. What a great revalation! Maybe I could write an article! So, I looked on the web only to discover that everybody had known this for a long time, and I was the last to find out. Oh, well.The main speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetary was Edward Everett, whose supposed ramblings have always been unfavorably compared to Lincoln's address. But Everett's speech wasn't bad at all. But it just so happened that it was followed by the greatest speech ever given.


There were parts of this book that I liked. I had never considered a literary analysis of the Gettysburg address, and I had no idea that Lincoln loved words so much, so those parts were intriguing. I also liked getting a glimpse of American Civil War society outside of the war: the perception of death, the Greek movement, the transcendentalists. But the book in its entirety just wasn't that enjoyable to read. There was too much about ancient Greece and what previous scholars had said about things. I guess I just really wanted to like this book, and was disappointed when it didn't live up to my expectations.


Extremely well written and rich with information. I have since tried to read more of Wills' works. This one and 'Papal Sin' are the two that I found most informative. While not the authors intent, this book revealed to me the the extent to which Abraham Lincoln's good intentions successfully changed the path of the country away from a cooperating group of peers to a centrally controlled nation state. His decision to put the needs of the union over the needs of the states and the needs of the people coupled with his effectiveness at framing the issues so that his view infected the minds of most of his listeners will take hundreds of years to recover from.

Paul Haspel

Lincoln and Gettysburg are inextricably interlinked, and the link between them is likely to impress itself upon one's mind with particular strength on a day such as this one. It was 150 years ago today, after all -- November 19, 1863 -- that President Abraham Lincoln delivered his dedication address for the newly completed National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Four months had passed since the tremendous battle of July 1-3 had turned the tide of civil war permanently in the Union's favor, albeit at an exceedingly high cost -- 46,000 casualties, including almost 8,000 soldiers killed. It is now a matter of record that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address put the Civil War on a new moral footing, gave it new meaning. Many authors have told that story before; but none, to my mind, has done so as well as Garry Wills in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 book Lincoln at Gettysburg.Wills, a prolific author who brings his formidable intellect and erudition to a wide range of historical topics, is particularly well-qualified to write about Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. One of his most notable earlier books is Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1978); and as Wills points out, the links between the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address are many and strong. Lincoln revered Jefferson as the greatest advocate of American liberty and saw the Declaration as the one indispensable American text; it is no accident that the Gettysburg Address begins with that four-score-and-seven-years ago reference to the Declaration.Yet Lincoln at Gettysburg is not all about the DOI: far from it. Wills sets the Gettysburg Address within a cultural and historical context that encompasses Transcendentalism, Greek Revival culture, and the 19th century's striking attitudes regarding death and mourning.For Wills, the Gettysburg Address goes beyond the Declaration, redefines the Declaration, in the American mind. It is for this reason that the book has the subtitle The Words That Remade America, as Wills makes clear in passages like this one:"The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit -- as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it....By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America." (pp. 146-47)The book's epilogues and appendices are every bit as helpful as its core content. One epilogue, titled "The Other Address," relates the Gettysburg to Lincoln's other best-known address -- his Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865, itself the subject of another magnificent study, Ronald White's Lincoln's Greatest Speech (2003). Edward Everett's two-hour oration from the cemetery dedication is here as well; it's perfectly passable, but seems bland and ordinary when Everett's words are compared with Lincoln's. You can even read the Athenian leader Pericles' renowned funeral oration from 431 B.C., the first year of the Peloponnesian War; as Wills notes, Pericles' oration from classical times had a marked influence on the attitudes toward military heroism and death that existed in Lincoln's time.Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Civil War history, Lincoln studies, or American history generally.

Jeff Currie

Having just read a history of the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and with Lincoln, the new film, just opening, I'm adding some Lincoln texts that I've read, though not recently. This one is Garry Wills' excellent book about the Address, and the cemetery and a range of pertinent cultural trends at the time. In a way "more than I wanted to know," but actually and satisfyingly "all the things I'm now very happy to know" about the important occasion. and about Lincoln's respectful words and important message - about union and the self-evident truths in our seminal declaration from four score and seven years before 1863. I was amzed to find, in a clip of "Lincoln" that I saw online recently, echoes of what is self-evident and what Wills says about the Greek Revival trend of that era.

Charles Wilson

This was an enlightening, well-researched, and gracefully written book. It debunked several myths that I held about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. I had thought that Edward Everett's two-hour speech on the day of Gettysburg cemetery dedication was a long-winded failure—a stark contrast to the brevity and eloquence of Lincoln's speech. Wills is careful to give Everett his due. He explains how Everett's speech was clearly intended as the primary speech of the day, and how Everett was working in a classical tradition. Wills includes Everett's entire speech in an appendix, and it's wonderfully done: it paints a portrait of the causes of the war, Gettysburg's place in it, and even highlights the role of women in the war, who "in the hospitals and the tents... have rendered services which millions could not buy." Wills shows that what Lincoln did with his dedicatory remarks that day, though, was to create "a political prose for America, to rank with the vernacular excellence of Twain." He broke away from the classicism of Everett and created something new, an "idealizing art" that suppressed particulars. The "Civil War is, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean," Wills writes. "Words had to complete the work of guns." Lincoln elevated Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" from simply a single proposition to make it "our supreme commitment." Wills also does a terrific job of tracing Lincoln's influences in the speech—all the way from Thucydides to a contemporary anti-nationalist named Theodore Parker. He reveals Lincoln to be a great student of grammar, and how his precision with words came gradually in his career. "Lincoln, like most writers of great prose, began by writing bad poetry," Wills writes. For a short book, the scope of "Lincoln at Gettysburg" is wide; I felt at times it could be better organized, but I wouldn't know how to do better. Besides its value as history, the book is also a good resource for anybody who tries to write clearly. Wills quotes one expert in rhetoric who influenced Lincoln: "The first rule which I shall give for promoting the strength of a sentence is to prune it of all redundant words.... Embarrassed, obscure and feeble sentences are generally, if not always, the result of embarrassed, obscure and feeble thought."


Transformative.This book tied together many disparate threads, from Pericles' funeral speech to Transcendentalists to Lincoln's sense of comic timing to the "rural cemetary movement". At times I thought I was reading a Greil Marcus book about the Gettysburg Address.The book is a great companion to The Battle Cry of Freedom. Where Battle Cry tries to take the entire civil war era in one great gulp, Lincoln at Gettysburg zooms in on one short speech and uncovers subtle details of the times and insights into Lincoln's thinking. My favorite part is when Wills describes an exchange between Lincoln and his secretary about how lines from Shakespeare should be read.

Robert Melnyk

Definitely not one of my favorites. I gave it 2 stars only because Lincoln and Civil War history are one of my favorite subjects, but overall I found this book to be pretty boring. I was expecting more of a history book, going into details of why Lincoln said what he did, events leading up to the speech, ramifications of the speech, etc. There was some of that, but for the most part, this book was more of an English lesson, comparing various writing styles throughout history. A bit of that would have been fine, but the extent that this book went into that subject made it pretty much of a snooze for me. I almost put it down after the second chapter, and then towards the end, I skimmed quite a bit. If you like Lincoln and the Civil War, skip this one and read "The Killer Angels" and "April 1865" instead.

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