Tuesday, November 19, 2013

On the platform with Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg as he spoke 'a few brief, but most appropriate, words'

The historian James McPherson has described Benjamin Brown French’s account of the cemetery dedication at Gettysburg as “the best we have.” French was a New Hampshireman, born in Chester in 1800. His nephew, Daniel Chester French, would one day sculpt the seated Lincoln statue in the Lincoln Memorial.

Benjamin Brown French
B.B. French was Lincoln’s commissioner of buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. As such, his most challenging duty was keeping First Lady Mary Lincoln’s expenses under control.

French makes multiple appearances in Our War. He went for a walk the morning after the first battle of Bull Run and happened upon the wagon that had carried Gilman Marston, the wounded congressman-colonel of the 2nd New Hampshire, back to Washington. On inauguration day in 1865, he helped frustrate a gunman in the Capitol, realizing only later that the man was John Wilkes Booth (You can read more about that here). French was also at Lincoln’s deathbed and looked after his body until it left Washington for Springfield.

At Gettysburg 150 years ago today, French served as a marshal under Ward Hill Lamon, Lincoln’s bodyguard. He had written a poem for the occasion, and it was sung as a hymn between the oration of Edward Hale Everett and the remarks of President Lincoln.

French wrote in his journal on Nov. 6, 1863: “Col. Lamon is to be Marshal-in-Chief at Gettysburg on the 19th inst., when the grand inauguration of the Cemetery for soldiers killed, or who died there, takes place, and he has asked me to aid him, which I have agreed to do. This will be a task. But we are all in for doing what we can to show our Patriotism, and I should not think I was doing my duty were I to decline. If alive & well, I shall be there.”

Ward Hill Lamon
And there he was. He wrote his account on Nov. 22, a Sunday, three days after the Gettysburg Address, which he described as “a few brief, but most appropriate, words.” Donald B. Cole and John J. McDonough transcribed a large portion of French’s diary for their wonderful Witness to the Young Republic, published in 1989. With a few excisions, here is French’s diary entry on the dedication of the cemetery:

We arrived at Gettysburg at ½ past one P.M. [on Tuesday, Nov. 17]. Quite a crowd accompanied us from Baltimore & Hanover Junction. . . . Finding that there was no certainty of my being accommodated at the hotel I went to Brother Robert Goodloe Harper’s [publisher of the Adams Centinel in Gettysburg], whose name had been given to me by Bro. Creigh [a Masonic friend of French’s], and he at once said that he would take care of me, and to him and his excellent wife and daughter am I indebted for as much comfort and happiness as any man in Gettysburg enjoyed from 2 o’clock on Tuesday until 1 o’clock P.M. on Friday [Nov. 20].

Mr. Harper is 64 years old & moves about with all the elasticity of a boy. He owns & edits the Adams Sentinel, a paper established many years ago by his father. He has had twelve children, 10 by his first wife, who died 20 years ago, & 2 by his present wife, to whom he has been married some 8 or 10 years. She is now 32 years old. He has grandchildren who are grown up. The whole family are remarkably hospitable and pleasant.

I spent the afternoon and evening in listening to Mrs. Harper’s account of the battle, and the many incidents accompanying it which fell under her observation. She remained in her house through the whole of it, and it became a hospital after the battle was over. Two bullets came into the house through the windows, one of which struck a crib at the bedside of a wounded officer, the other passed within a few inches of Mrs. Harper. One shell fell in the garden within a few feet of the house, but did not explode. It was picked up, the charge extracted, & now lies on the parlor table, where I saw it. . . .

At 6 P.M. [on Wednesday, Nov. 18] came the President of the U.S., Secretaries Seward & Usher, and P.M. Gen. Blair of the Cabinet [Secretary of State William H. Seward, Interior Secretary John P. Usher and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair], the French and Italian Ministers and their Secretaries, & Messrs. [John] Nicolay & [John] Hay, Private Secretaries to the President. Mr. Seward, Mr. Berchenatti (the Italian Minister) & his Secretary, Mr. Cova, stayed at Mr. Harper’s, where I did, and the President and the others of his party at Mr. Wills’s [David Wills, chairman of the cemetery board, had invited Lincoln to speak at the dedication] next door to Mr. Harper’s.

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 and Mr. Seward were serenaded and made brief speeches. . . .

Secretary of State William H. Seward
At this point let me say that I have seldom, if ever, met a man whose mind is under such perfect discipline, and is so full of original and striking matter as Secretary Seward’s. His conversation, no matter on what subject, is worthy of being written down and preserved, and if he had a Boswell to write, as Boswell did of Johnson, one of the most interesting and useful books of the age might be produced from the conversations and sayings of William H. Seward. He is one of the greatest men of this generation.

After I retired to rest, the public square on which Mr. Harper’s house fronts seemed to be filled with people. They sang & hallooed and cheered. Among other things they sang in full chorus & admirably, the whole of that well known production whose refrain is –

We are coming Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more.

I went to sleep between 1 & 2 A.M. & arose at daylight [Nov. 19]. As soon as breakfast was over I set about procuring a horse, which I got of the Quartermaster, Capt. [Henry Bloyden] Blood. A shaggy, unpromising looking nag he was, but on mounting him & using the spurs pretty freely, I found that he was a spirited and easy-going breast, and he performed all I desired admirably.

The Marshals were all assembled, mounted, in the square, with sashes on and batons in hand, at 9 o’clock, and by 10 the procession commenced moving. Never was a procession better formed or more orderly. It was escorted by nearly 2,000 troops of all arms under command of Major Gen. [Darius] Couch. . . .

As soon as the dignitaries who occupied the stand, numbering perhaps 250, were seated, Hon. Edward Everett & Rev. Thomas H. Stockton [Methodist minister and chaplain of the U.S. Senate] appeared, escorted by a Committee of Governors of States, and being seated, one of the bands struck up and performed a solemn piece of music in admirable style. That over, Mr. Stockton made one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers I ever heard. The band then played, with great effect, Old Hundred.

Mr. Everett then arose, and without notes of any kind, pronounced an oration. He occupied two full hours in the delivery, and it was one of the greatest, most eloquent, elegant, and appropriate orations to which I ever listened. I stood at his very side, through it, and I think the oratory could not be surpassed by mortal man.

I stood at the side of John Quincy Adams when he delivered his great Eulogy on Lafayette, in the old Hall of the House of Representatives, Dec. 31, 1834, and standing there, by Everett’s side at Gettysburg, how the past came back upon me, and I thought if Adams could be alive, & here today, how his pure and honest heart would swell with the patriotism that has followed his own great efforts to bring about the emancipation of the negro race which is so rapidly approaching. I hope his immortal spirit could look down upon us with an approving smile, on that auspicious day.

Mr. Everett was listened to with breathless silence by all that immense crowd, and he had his audience in tears many times during his masterly effort. When he had finished, the following, headed “Consecration Hymn,” was sung beautifully, & with much effect, by a Musical Association from Baltimore. [This was the poem/hymn French had written.] I can say here, that I never was so flattered at any production of my own, as in relation to that same Hymn. All who heard it seemed to consider it most appropriate, and most happily conceived.

As soon as the hymn was sung, Marshal Lamon introduced the President of the United States, who, in a few brief, but most appropriate words, dedicated the cemetery. Abraham Lincoln is the idol of the American people at this moment. Anyone who saw & heard as I did, the hurricane of applause that met his every movement at Gettysburg would know that he lived in every heart. It was no cold, faint shadow of a kind reception – it was a tumultuous outpouring of exultation, from true and loving hearts, at the sight of a man whom everyone knew to be honest and true and sincere in every act of life, and every pulsation of the heart. It was the spontaneous outburst of heartfelt confidence in their own President. . . .

For about an hour after the return of the President to Mr. Wills’s, he received all who chose to call on him, and there were thousands who two took him by the hand. At ½ past 6 he left in a special train for this City [Washington], and arrived home about midnight. That evening and the succeeding morning, a vast multitude left Gettysburg.

John B. Bachelder
The Marshals all procured horses about 10 o’clock Friday [Nov. 20] and rode out to and over the Battleground in a body. A Mr. [John B.] Bachelder, a native of Gilmanton, N.H., who is preparing a map of the battleground, and has studied the localities thoroughly, rode out with us and described the battleground from a number of points in a very clear and interesting manner.

I had a very hard going horse, & headstrong, & found the labor of riding so severe that when the cavalcade left the Cemetery for more distant points, I trotted down the southern slope of the hill to the house occupied by Gen. Meade as his headquarters, it being a very interesting point to me, as Capt. William H. Paine, an Engineer in the Army, was with Gen. Meade, and when the Gen. left for another part of the field, Capt. P. was left in charge of the house and remained in it, as he supposed alone, through all the tremendous cannonade, during which shells & shot passed again and again through the house, and 17 horses were killed all around it. After the firing ceased, several men appeared to Capt. Paine’s astonished vision ascending from the cellar where they had been keeping themselves out of harm’s way!

This same Capt. Paine was born in the same town in which I was, and within ten rods of my father’s house. I knew him when a boy, he being many years my junior. He was at my house several times summer before last.

Well, I went to the house mentioned [Meade’s headquarters]. The door was locked, and a little girl was on the piazza, or porch, who told me that the people were at the barn. I looked particularly at the outside of the house & saw where the shot and shell perforated it. On my way to the barn I passed the carcasses of two dead horses, which were very offensive. I found a young man at the barn who said his mother occupied the house. He was at Fortress Monroe when the battle occurred, as a soldier in the three months service. Since his return he had mended up the barn, which was shattered worse than the house. He showed me many shot holes which still remain. He said he burned the carcasses of 15 of the horses that were killed, but the two that remained were so near the outbuildings that he could not burn them without endangering the buildings.

Alexander Gardner
After making all the observations I desired, I started to return to my horse when I saw two men with a camera down in the field n front of the house. I walked down and found Mr. [Alexander] Gardner, a Photographer of this City, was the man. At his urgent request I walked back to the house and took a position on the porch where I was, I suppose, photographed with the house. There were, then, two children on the porch with me.

I then mounted my horse and rode leisurely up through the clump of trees on top of the hill every one of which had been hit with some missile, and many of the largest were cut off at from 6 to 10 feet above the ground by shot or shell. I then rode into town along the street where stands a house, the south end of which was torn nearly to pieces by shells fired into it, as I was told, by our batteries at the request of its owner, the rebels having taken possession of it.

In last than 10 minutes after I passed, a man and boy who were engaged in unloading a shell, were blown up by its exploding – the boy killed instantly & the man losing both arms & probably his eyes. The Doct. pronounced  his case almost hopeless, and he is probably dead ere this. Mr. [Nathan Henry] Barrett, who went out with me, was opposite the place when the shell exploded, and at the request of the screaming women, went after a surgeon, whom he found on the street and sent to them.

We all returned to town about 12, and about ½ past one were off to Washington. . . .

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