Presidential Party Leaves Washington for Gettysburg

November 18, 1863

Although Tad Lincoln is sick, President Lincoln departs Washington with his two secretaries, Secretary of State William h. Seward, Secretary of the Interior John Palmer Usher, and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair – along with presidential secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay.

General James B. Fry writes: “I was designated by the Secretary of War as a sort of special escort to a company the President from Washington to Gettysburg upon the occasion of the first anniversary of the battle at that place.  At the appointed time I found the President’s carriage at the door to take him to the station; but he was not ready.  When he appeared it was rather late, and I remarked that he had no time to lose in going to the train. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I fell about that as the convict in one of our Illinois towns felt when he was going to the gallows.   As he passed along the road in the custody of the sheriff, the people, eager to see the execution, kept crowding and pushing past him. At last he called out, ‘Boys! you needn’t be in such a hurry to get ahead, for there won’t be any fun till I get there.’

It has been said, I believe, that Lincoln wrote in the car en route to Gettysburg the celebrated speech which he delivered upon that historic battle-ground.  I am quite sure that is an error.  I have no recollection of seeing him writing or even reading his speech during the journey.  In fact, there was hardly any opportunity for him to read or write.

Presidential aide John Hay writes in his diary of the president’s journey from Washington to Gettysburg: “We started from Washington to go to the Consecration of the Soldiers’ Cemetery at Gettysburg.  On our train were the President Seward Usher & Blair: Niclay & Myself: Mercier & Admiral Reynaud; Bertinatti & Capt. Isola & Lt. Martinez & Cora: Mrs. Wise: Wayne McVeagh: McDougal of Canada and one or two others.  We had a pleasant sort of a trip.  At Baltimore Scenck’s staff joined us.

“Just before we arrived at Gettysburg the President got into a little talk with McVeagh about Missouri affairs.  McV. talked radicalism until he learned that he was talking recklessly.  The President disavowed any knowledge of the Edwards case, said that Bates said to him, as indeed he said to me, that Edwards was inefficient and must be removed for that reason.

At Gettysburg the President went to Mr. Wills who expected him and our party broke like a drop of quicksilver spilt.  McVeagh young Stanton & I foraged around for a while – walked out to the College got a chafing dish of oysters then some supper and finally loafing around to the Court House where Lamon was holding a meeting Marshals, we found Forney and went around to his place Mr. Fahnestocks and drank a little whiskey with him.  He had been drinking a good deal during the day and was getting to feel a little ugly and dangerous.  He was particularly bitter on Montgomery Blair. McVeagh was telling him that he pitched into the President coming up and told him some truths.  He said the President got a good deal of that from time to time and needed it.

He says “Hay you are a fortunate man.  You have kept yourself aloof from your office.  I know an old fellow now seventy who was Private Secretary to Madison.  He has lived ever since on its recollection.  He thought there was something solemn and memorable in it.  Hay has laughed through his term.”

“He talked very strangely referring to the affectionate and loyal support which he and Curtin had given to the President in Pennsylvania: with references from himself and others to the favors that had been shown the Cameron party whom they regard as their natural enemies.  Forney seems identified fully now with the Curtin interest, though when Curtin was nominated he called him a heavy weight to carry and said that Cameron’s foolish attack nominated him.

“We went out after a while following the music to hear the serenades.  The Prsident appeared at the door said half a dozen words meaning nothing & went in.  Seward who was staying around the corner at Harper’s was called out and spoke so indistinctly that I did not hear a word of what he was saying.  Forney and McVeagh were still growlinnnng about Blair.

“We went back to Forney’s room having picked up Nicolay and drank more whiskey.  Nicolay sung his little song of the ‘Three Thieves’ and we then sung John Brown.  At last we proposed that Forney should make a speech and two or three started out Shannon and Behan and Nicolay to get a band to serenade him.  I staid with him.  So did Stanton and McVeagh.  He still growled quietly and I thought he was going to do something imprudent.  He said if I speak, I will speak my mind.  The music sounded in the street and the fuglers came rushing up imploring him to come down.  He smiled quietly told them to keep cool and asked ‘are the recorder there.’  ‘I suppose so of course’ shouted the fugler. ‘Ascertain’ said the imperturbable Forney.  ‘Hay, we’ll take a drink.’  They shouted and begged him to come down The thing would be a failure – it would be his fault &c.  ‘Are the recorders congenial?’  He calmly insisted on knowing.  Somebody commended prudence He said sternly ‘I am always prudent.’  I walked down stairs with him.

“And very much of this.

The crowd was large and clamorous.  The fuglers stood by the door in an agony.  The reporters squatted at a little stand in the entry.  Forney stood on the Threshold, John Young & I by him.  The crowd shouted as the door opened.  Forney said: ‘My friends, these are the first hearty cheers I have heard tonight.  You gave no such cheers to your President down the street.  Do you know what you owe to that Great man?  You owe your country – you owe your name as American citizens.’”

“He went on blackguarding the crowd for their apathy & then diverged to his own record saying he had ben for Lincoln in his heart in 1860 – that open advocacy was not as effectual as the course he took – dividing the most corrupt organization that ever existed – the proslavery Dem. Party.  He dwelt at length on this question and then went back to the eulogy of the President that great, wonderful mysterious inexplicable man: who holds in his single hands the reins of the republic: who keep his own counsels: who does his own purpose in his own way no matter what temporizing minister in his cabinet sets himself up in opposition to the progress of the age.

“After him Wayne McVeagh made a most touching and beautiful speech of five minutes and Judge Shannon of Pittsburgh spoke effectively and acceptably to the people.

‘That speech must not be written out yet’ says Young.  He will see further about it, when he gets sober,’ as we went up stairs.  We sang John Brown and went home.

In his remarks to the crowd, President Lincoln writes: “I appear before you, fellow-citizens, merely to thank you for this compliment.  The inference is a very fair one that you would hear me for a little while at least, were I to commence to make a speech.  I do not appear before you for the purpose of doing so, and for several substantial reasons.  The most substantial of these is that I have no speech to make.  [Laughter.]  In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say any foolish things.

A VOICE – If you can help it.

MR. LINCOLN – It very often happens that only way to help it is to say nothing at all.  [Laughter.]  Believing that is my present condition this evening, I must beg of you to excuse me from addressing you further.

Benjamin Brown French, federal commissioner of buildings, recalled: “In the evening the President came into Mr. Harper’s and spent an hour.  That evening there was a large influx of visitors, and the president & Mr. Seward were serenaded and made brief speeches.”

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