I went into this book feeling like I had preconceptions about Lincoln, Gettysburg, and the American Civil War. But I knew I was ignorant, and in a way acknowledging ignorance is a good way of becoming a sort of tabula rasa.
It was easy to admit ignorance (at least to myself). With a title like The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech Nobody Knows I expected to learn something I didn’t know. And I didn’t feel ashamed of it, since apparently nobody knew it.
The book doesn’t recount the events of the battle of Gettysburg. It assumes the reader already knows it was the turning point of the war. And though the reader may assume he or she knows how bad the devastation was, Boritt begins his book with in-depth descriptions of how bad it actually was. Imagine wounded and dead in such large numbers that it overwhelms the population of a city. Bodies lay neglected in fields because there simply wasn’t manpower to remove them to hospitals or to bury the corpses. Even when corpses did get buried, it was such a hasty job that later they had to dig up the graves in the attempt to figure out the identity of the soldier lying there, what side he’d fought on, who his next of kin were…and finally, to give him a decent burial.
That was the reason Lincoln came to Gettysburg. Not to give his famous speech, but to lay the buried dead to rest in a national cemetery. Boritt describes the dignitaries, the journey by train to the site, the celebrity fever that caused people to flock to Gettysburg to hear the dignitaries and catch a glimpse of the president.* He poses the question of whether Lincoln wrote the speech in a flash of inspiration (as was the legend), or if he wrote it carefully over a period of time (as some historians suggest); Boritt never quite answers this question, instead going over the impact the Gettysburg Address has had over the course of history from the World Wars to September 11.