Michelle Krowl, a Civil War and Reconstruction specialist, watches as Holly Krueger, head of the library’s paper conservation section, handles President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address at the Library of Congress in Washington. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

In the winter of 1865, near the close of the Civil War, a haggard-looking Abraham Lincoln took a printed draft of his upcoming second inaugural address and cut it to pieces.

He sliced it into 27 segments, and then, using the smelly, animal-bone-based glue of the time, reassembled it on a heavy piece of paper he folded down the middle.

He took the original four large paragraphs and broke them into 25, carefully spacing them on the page for special emphasis and in the process creating one of the greatest speeches in American history.

Next month, the Library of Congress will put on display for the first time in a half-century Lincoln’s patchwork “reading copy” of the speech and the four-page handwritten version he gave to his young secretary, John Hay, days before his assassination.

The library is mounting the display to mark the 150th anniversary of the speech March 4. But because the documents are so fragile, the display will be only four days: March 4 to March 7.

Curators from the Library of Congress prepare a copy of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address for an upcoming exhibit in Washington. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The documents are scheduled to be displayed in the Great Hall of the library’s Jefferson Building, across from the U.S. Capitol. The library believes the documents were last displayed together in 1959.

“It could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all the pages that we have,” said Michelle A. Krowl, a library Civil War specialist.

The speech, which is etched in stone at the Lincoln Memorial, is a 700-word meditation on the war and its causes, slavery and the judgments of God, healing and peace.

“With malice toward none,” it concludes, “with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre in Washington six weeks later, on April 14. He died the next morning.

[Read ongoing coverage of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.]

Last Thursday, experts at the library showed the two versions of the speech, explained Lincoln’s quirky composition style and spoke about the damage the documents have incurred over 150 years.

The handwritten manuscript of President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address is seen at the Library of Congress in Washington. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Even in a library conservation lab, the experts were careful to limit the exposure to light, covering the documents with large sheets of paper before and after discussing them.

The documents are considered among the library’s “top treasures,” said Elmer Eusman, chief of the conservation division. They are stored in a protective vault.

“It’s pretty humbling to see them naked,” said Holly H. Krueger, head of the library’s paper conservation section.

Lincoln had taken such care with his March 4, 1865, speech because the defeat of the Confederacy was at hand, said Krowl, the Civil War specialist.

He wanted to summarize what the bloody, four-year struggle had been about and where the country might be headed.

He didn’t want to celebrate, however, and suggested, instead, that the whole country — “both North and South” — might share the blame for the war’s cause, slavery.

And, typical of Lincoln, he wanted to be brief. The speech was about 700 words. But he cut and pasted them on his reading copy for maximum impact.

Although there are no eyewitness accounts, “you can just imagine Lincoln sitting there with a pair of scissors and the gluepot, thinking about how he wanted to do this,” Krowl said.

In the handwritten version, he wrote about the start of the conflict:

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

On the reading copy, he broke out And the war came and made it a separate, dramatic paragraph — “one of the many famous phrases” in the speech, Krowl said.

The four-page, handwritten copy is powerful in its own way.

Krowl said Lincoln wrote it in large, neat handwriting probably to send to the printer. But he made some last-minute corrections before he did that.

He altered, for example, the conclusion by writing a new ending on another strip of paper and pasting it over the old ending.

The old ending: to achieve and cherish a lasting peace among ourselves and with the world.

The new ending: to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with the world.

He later crossed out the world and replaced it with all nations.

“And like the Gettysburg Address, the second inaugural [speech] is full of one-syllable words,” she said. “Most of it is very simple language — beautiful, but simple language.”

Lincoln wrote the speech on four sheets of lined paper, probably using a steel-nibbed pen he dipped in standard iron gall ink. A few of his ink smudges are still on the pages.

The last page is significantly darker, from exposure, than the first three because it was exhibited more often, the experts think. That is the page that bears the famous passage: with malice toward none.

According to records, that page might have been on display by itself for as long as 10 years in the 1950s, said William Jacobs, head of the library’s interpretative programs office.

The handwritten version was given to the library in 1916 by descendants of Hay.

On the back of the last page Lincoln has inscribed it:

“Original manuscript of second inaugeral presented to Maj. John Hay.

A. Lincoln. April 10, 1865.” (Lincoln often misspelled inaugural.)

The library is not certain where it obtained the reading copy of the speech. Lincoln delivered the five-minute address at the east front of the Capitol on a rainy day that is said to have turned sunny as he spoke.

“I expect the [speech] to wear as well as anything I have produced,” he later wrote. “But I believe it is not immediately popular. Men are not flattered by being shown . . . a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the time that elapsed between Lincoln’s second inaugural address and his assassination. This version has been corrected.