Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, Monday, November 16, 1863

"I just want to keep it light, keep it flowing." -Abraham Lincoln

Dear Ulysses,

I wanted to run by you my planned remarks for this Thursday’s event in Gettysburg. If you can spare a moment, your thoughts are always appreciated. Here’s what I have so far, with my notes in brackets:

I don’t know why they call this the Civil War. Doesn’t seem to me like there’s anything civil about it. (Pause for laughter.) [Figured I’d open with a joke.] But seriously, a lot of people died here. A lot. Actually, so many people died we figured we’d just turn this whole battlefield into a cemetery and be done with it. So thank you all so much for being here today to honor the memory of our brave, if not very talented [effective?] soldiers.

Sometimes, in the midst of all this fighting, it’s easy to lose sight of why we’re fighting this war. We must remember that fourscore and seven years ago, our fathers put into motion the events that led to this bloody and protracted conflict. [Don’t you think I’m right about that?] So basically, we have no choice but to  go through the motions and see if we come out one country on the other side.

[Something hopeful about brotherhood goes here. Still working on this bit.]

Lincoln ’64! [Too much?]

Anyway, that’s pretty much what I have so far. I tried to keep it light, but I could go a bit more serious if you think that’d be better. No rush getting comments, but I promised Mary I’d let her add a couple outbursts, so the sooner you can get the draft back to me, the better.

All the best,

Abe

Analysis:

Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is one of the most influential, well-known, and beloved works of American oratory. Along with Washington’s Farewell Address, FDR’s “Fear itself” speech, and Nixon’s “Muthafuckas can’t touch me, I’m the muthafuckin’ Tricky Dick” drunk dial, Americans will likely remember Lincoln’s words for as long as they remember the Civil War. This letter, recently discovered by Dr. Norcrum Cross of the University of Abe Lincoln Memorabilia, will someday be a valuable teaching tool for frustrated English teachers explaining for the twelfth time how important first drafts can be.

Grant was entirely too drunk to respond appropriately to the President’s letter, leaving the task to his aide, Cpl. Denton Feathersby. Cpl. Feathersby’s response is lost to history, but we know from Lincoln’s writings that the initial comments were not very encouraging. Lincoln quotes Feathersby as saying “what are you trying to do? Dedicate, consecrate, or hallow that ground? You can’t do that!” Although the President was disappointed by the response, Secretary Seward’s response buoyed his spirits and gave him the push he needed to finish the speech:

Nothing “civil” about it? My word, the phrasing of your delightful opening had me out of my seat and upon the ground, from where I did release the most raucous of guffaws, such that Mrs. Seward was made to remark that if I carried on as I was, our mule might well depart our company, such was the timbre and cadence of my mirth. In addition, I greatly support your decision to cast the blame at the feet of Washington, Franklin, and that most-uncouth and despicable Patrick Henry. Finally, the hagiography of these overrated men can be rewritten, since they completely failed to deal with this “South” while they had the chance. A pox on them all. Lincoln ’64!

Lincoln famously changed the focus of the speech on the train to Gettysburg to something far more somber, which struck a cord with the audience and continues to do so with readers today. Unfortunately, it also means that history lost its only chance to see the 16th president of the United States perform his fabled “rubber chicken Jefferson Davis” bit. The reason for the changes are murky, although it was around this time Lincoln realized his wife was dangerously insane. Fragments of her “outbursts,” as Lincoln refers to them above, suggest that Mrs. Lincoln was entirely preoccupied with the dangers facing housewives while their husbands were at war, almost entirely to do with spiders. This tradition dating back at least to the founding of the Republic. Her panicky shrieking was enough for Lincoln’s allies in Congress to shoehorn language into the Homestead Act allowing settlers on the frontier to own rolled up newspapers regardless of gender.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, Monday, November 16, 1863

  1. These are great, especially the Lincoln one!

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