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Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: To See or Not to See

Charles Hillinger's America

September 15, 1989|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — For 10 summers millions of Americans have viewed an original draft of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in a vault at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

But last month, James Billington, the Library of Congress' curator for the rare document, announced that "because of preservation concerns" the Gettysburg Address will no longer be available for public display at Gettysburg. Instead, it will be stored away in a box in the Library's Manuscript Division.

"I am extremely disappointed. Seeing an original copy of Lincoln's famous speech as he wrote it is the highlight of everyone's visit to Gettysburg," said Daniel R. Kuehn, 59, superintendent of Gettysburg National Cemetery and Gettysburg National Military Park. "You should see people pour over the document with reverence. They read it. Talk about it. Oh and ah. They get very emotional."

"It's crazy to keep the original copies of Lincoln's speech buried in a box in a basement where nobody can see them," commented U.S. Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), who personally arranged for the loan agreement in the late 1970s. "A great deal of money has been spent to make sure the document is kept as well or even better than the Library of Congress keeps it. Billington told me he would send the Park facsimiles of the documents. Forget it. It blows my mind that he wants to stop this."

In a letter to the congressman, Billington contended that if the Library of Congress continued the arrangement to exhibit an original draft of the Gettysburg Address in Gettysburg each summer, it would not be in keeping with the government's promise to the donors of the two documents "to preserve them forever."

(It was the children of John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary from 1861 to 1865, who gave the documents to the library for preservation.)

Faces a Dilemma

"We are always torn between wanting to share rare materials with the public and at the same time preserving them," explained Nancy Bush, information officer at the Library of Congress. "We are more aware all the time of the need to preserve important historical documents as time goes on and the old inks keep getting dimmer."

Kuehn and Goodling both insist, however, that the National Parks Service has made every effort to meet the demands of the Library for the protection of the documents, including limited viewing hours, lighting, air quality, temperature and encasement. The Gettysburg Address is exhibited in a darkened room of the huge vault seven hours a day.

"The National Parks Service has never had one single complaint, never one word from the Library of Congress in 10 years about how we display the document," said Kuehn. "We maintained it absolutely 100% according to procedures they set forth. The letter from Dr. Billington terminating the arrangement came as a complete surprise. It was a real shock."

Goodling added: "How could there be damage? The Library of Congress sets the standards. The Parks Service did exactly what they asked."

Lincoln came by train from Washington to Gettysburg to dedicate the National Cemetery here Nov. 19, 1863, four months after the Battle of Gettysburg was fought.

In the wake of the fiercely-fought battle between Gen. Robert E. Lee's 75,000 soldiers and Gen. George G. Meade's 97,000 troops, there were 51,000 casualties.

The remains of Confederate soldiers were transported to Southern cities for burial, but Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin appointed David Wills, 32, a Gettysburg attorney to head up burial of the Union forces. Wills purchased 17 acres of the battleground for $2,475 for a soldiers' cemetery. A contract was awarded for the burial of each Union soldier at a cost of $1.59.

When Wills arranged for a dedication ceremony at the cemetery, America's foremost orator at the time, Edward Everett, 69, former governor of Massachusetts, president of Harvard, U.S. senator and secretary of state agreed to deliver the main address.

But Wills also wrote the President: "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."

Speech of 271 Words

Everett's speech lasted two hours. Then Lincoln, wearing a black mourning band around his tall black silk hat, mounted the wooden platform before a crowd of 15,000 war-weary soldiers and civilians. He began the speech that lives forever in the hearts of all Americans, a speech lasting only two minutes, 271 words in 10 sentences:

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . ."

In Gettysburg National Cemetery near the site where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address is the tall white Soldiers' National Monument completed in 1869. Close by is the Lincoln Speech Memorial, erected in 1912 to commemorate not the man, but the speech.

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