Book review: The Gettysburg Gospel



gettysburg gospelLincoln’s Gettysburg Address is on parallel with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in its stature.

As the most famous speech in American History and just 271 words long, it implied so much and in such lofty terms, without actually stating uncomfortable truths directly.

On that cold November day in 1863, when the graves of thousands were still fresh in the ground, Lincoln only sought to give his seal of approval to the battlefield cemetery, which contained the mortal remains of both Union and Confederate fighters. But he gave our nation reason to believe in fighting on for the cause of free people.

If you like Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg, you will also appreciate the vivid writing in The Gettysburg Gospel, which deepens our understanding of the content and the context of this remarkable speech, and the promise of the nation that inspired it.

Earlier that year, in the heat of summer, ten thousand soldiers’ bodies were dusted over with dirt and lime, while swarms of flies and human and animal excrement covered the field, and the carcasses of three thousand or more horses and mules were rigor mortis on the land around Gettysburg. Twenty-one thousand were wounded. “War had come to them. And then it had gone and left the horror behind.”

It’s difficult to imagine what that scene looked like and smelled like, but we know from this description that it was hell on earth for the 2,400 sturdy Scotch-Irish and German people who inhabited Gettysburg. They became coffin-makers overnight. The white powder of lime covered everything “like snow in July,” as the town coped with the stench, the fear of disease, and the throngs of strangers — some to find their loved ones, some to loot, and others just war tourists, there to witness, to “gawk.” Gettysburg, for a time, ceased to be a town, but became a collection of hospitals, one person observed.

The Gettysburg Gospel transports the reader back to the day and sets the scene into which President Lincoln would offer his words of hope, solace, and healing for a nation so divided.