HANOVER JUNCTION, Pa. — On a spring Sunday in 1953, an elderly, white-haired woman stepped off a train from Washington and was greeted by hundreds of people who were waiting in this quiet village in a misting rain.
She was Helen Nicolay, 87, and she had come to unveil a plaque marking a famous journey her father, John, had made almost a century before.
On Nov. 18, 1863, another train from Washington had chuffed around the bend and stopped at the rail junction here en route to Gettysburg, 30 miles west.
Along with her father, it carried his boss, President Abraham Lincoln, who had in his pocket a short, unfinished speech.
“Four score and seven years ago,” it began, “our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’ ”
Lincoln was satisfied with that part and the rest of the first page he had written out on Executive Mansion stationery back in Washington.
It was the second page that he was about to scrap, and rewrite so powerfully, after he arrived in Gettysburg.
In addition to Helen Nicolay’s father, who was Lincoln’s confidant and chief secretary, others on the train included Secretary of State William H. Seward; Lincoln’s free black valet, William H. Johnson, who would soon be dead of smallpox; and the Rev. Thomas A. Stockton, a congressional chaplain who would give a moving, and now forgotten, talk of his own in Gettysburg.
Nicolay’s boyish assistant, John Hay, who called Lincoln “the Tycoon,” was also aboard, as were politicians, foreign dignitaries and 27 members of the Marine Band, including John Philip Sousa’s father, Antonio.
All those on the train that paused here to switch rail lines were bound for roles, large and small, in one of the Civil War’s great dramas — the delivery by Lincoln the next day of the Gettysburg Address.
The small southern Pennsylvania town where they were headed had been ravaged that July in the biggest and bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
Lincoln had been invited to speak at the dedication of the cemetery set aside for the thousands of dead Union soldiers, but he wasn’t the keynote speaker.
The main Gettysburg address had been assigned to the most celebrated orator of the day, Edward Everett, a 69-year-old former U.S. senator and secretary of state.
The original date of the ceremony, Oct.23, had been pushed back four weeks to give him time to prepare. “The occasion is one of great importance,” Everett wrote in response to his invitation, “not to be dismissed with a few sentimental or patriotic commonplaces.”
He had thus prepared a two-hour speech — which included a 177-word sentence — and had a private tent with a portable commode stationed by the speakers’ platform in case he needed a bathroom break.
He was waiting with the throng of VIPs, reporters and well wishers at the Gettysburg train station for Lincoln to arrive.
Of course it would be Lincoln’s speech that would define the nation the next day and touch all who were associated with it — from Nicolay, who long had custody of the speech; to Everett, who admitted that his oration was utterly eclipsed by Lincoln’s; to a man on the speakers’ platform who said he held Lincoln’s hat.
As spoken, the speech was probably about 240 words — slightly more in versions Lincoln wrote out later.
It was written in three big paragraphs, with varying punctuation, totaling about 10 sentences. It probably took him about five minutes to deliver.
But it would be that short speech, given over freshly dug graves 150 years ago this fall, that gave a revolutionary new meaning to the Civil War and to the nation, historian Garry Wills has written.
“The Civil War is, to most Americans, what Lincoln wanted it to mean,” Wills wrote in his 1992 book, “Lincoln at Gettysburg, the Words that Remade America.” With his speech, Lincoln crafted a new country, and gave its people “a new past . . . that would change their future indefinitely.”
In the wake of the titanic battle on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, it was said that you could smell Gettysburg before you reached it.
Thousands of dead men and horses were scattered across the fields in the summer heat.
Most of the dead men were hastily, and inadequately, buried, and the horses burned.
“The heart sickened at the sights that presented themselves at every step,” recalled Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin, who visited Gettysburg shortly after the battle.
Something had to be done, and Curtin assigned a Gettysburg lawyer, David Wills, 32, who had influence and a big house on the town square, to take charge.
The idea of a national cemetery for the Union dead was proposed, agreed on, and Wills began raising money for the project. He acquired a 17-acre, boomerang-shaped parcel of land next to Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery.
Wills hired a noted Scottish-born landscaper to lay out the new cemetery, and Wills and his advisers began to think about a dedication ceremony.
The role of Lincoln was debated. There was agreement that he could be invited, but whether he should speak was in question.
“It was said that this would not be an occasion suitable to his accustomed manner of speaking,” Clark E. Carr, who was a state agent from Illinois working with Wills, recalled in a newspaper story many years later. “He could scarcely be equal to such a memorial occasion.”
So on Nov. 2, Wills wrote Lincoln, inviting him to attend, and informing him that Everett would deliver the “Oration.” Wills asked if, after Everett’s speech, Lincoln would dedicate the grounds with “a few appropriate remarks.”
Lincoln was busy with the war and politics, and his son, Tad, 10, was sick, probably with a mild version of smallpox. A year earlier, Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, had lost their 11-year-old son, Willie, probably to typhoid fever.
But Lincoln had been energized by the Union victory at Gettysburg, and furious that the rebel army had escaped destruction. Plus, his “gallant and brave friend,” Union Gen. John Reynolds, had been killed in the first day’s fighting.
At the last minute, he decided he would attend the dedication. But first he had to jot down his “remarks.”
The plain-looking document rests on a metal cart in a small room in the Library of Congress. The two pages are held behind thick Plexiglas that filters out ultraviolet light. They are encased in a steel frame that looks bomb-proof and contains inert argon gas to prevent deterioration of the paper.
This is the cherished “Nicolay Copy” of the Gettysburg Address, the version that was in the custody of John G. Nicolay, Helen’s father, in Washington for many years.
It is believed to be the version that Lincoln took to the speaker’s platform, and from which he read. (It is scheduled to go on display in the library’s Jefferson Building starting Nov. 8.)
There are five known copies of the Gettysburg Address, many with slight differences.
The Library of Congress has two, said Michelle A. Krowl, Civil War and Reconstruction specialist in the library’s manuscript division.
“There may have been more floating around,” Krowl said. “These are just the five that we know about.”
Lincoln appears to have written the other four after using the Nicolay copy to give his speech in Gettysburg.
Lincoln, like many good writers, wrote and rewrote, gathered data, and rewrote some more, according to a forthcoming book, “Writing the Gettysburg Address,” by Miami University historian Martin P. Johnson.
Like other good speakers, he also refined material he had used before.
In this case, Johnson points out, Lincoln had used rough elements in a July 7, 1863, speech in Washington that would reappear, beautifully transformed, at Gettysburg.
“How long ago is it?” Lincoln had said in the earlier speech. “Eighty-odd years since upon the fourth day of July, for the first time in the world, a union body of representatives was assembled to declare as a self-evident truth that all men were created equal.”
The Nicolay copy has two pages. The first is carefully written, mostly in ink, on Executive Mansion stationery.
The second is done in pencil on a separate sheet of plain, lined paper that has a piece torn off the bottom.
Lincoln was tailoring his speech to keep it short but wanted it to be good, Johnson writes. The night before he left for Gettysburg, the president called the cemetery designer, William Saunders, to the White House.
According to Johnson, the designer brought his plans, spread them out on a table, and Lincoln peppered him with questions. “He was much pleased,” Saunders recalled later, adding that Lincoln asked him if he was going to attend the dedication.
Saunders said he planned to go, and Lincoln said, “Well, I may see you on the train.”
The train left the B&O station in Washington a little before noon on Nov. 18. There was a locomotive, decorated with evergreen wreaths and a U.S. flag, and three or four cars. (Reports vary.)
The trip had been set for Nov. 19, when Lincoln would go up to Gettysburg, give his speech, and come back the same day. But he had rejected that plan, saying it would be too rushed — a “breathless running of the gantlet.”
It’s not clear how many people were on board the train. But there was the Marine Band, with its instruments, plus VIPs, plus disabled Union soldiers from the Invalid Corps, as a military escort.
Lincoln had started working on his speech in Washington, and probably had a two-page version on Executive Mansion stationery with him. The second page would be discarded in Gettysburg.
“Probably he threw it away, probably in Gettysburg,” Johnson said in a telephone interview. “That’s what I surmise.”
The train stopped in Baltimore, headed north across the Mason-Dixon line, then through the Pennsylvania towns of New Freedom and Glen Rock to Hanover Junction. From there, it headed west to Gettysburg.
David Wills’s big house on the southeast corner of Gettysburg’s “diamond,” or town square, was packed with 38 people — family and guests — the night of Nov. 18, 1863.
It was so jammed that Edward Everett almost had to share a bed with Pennsylvania’s Gov. Curtin, Johnson recounts in his book. Curtin “kindly went out and found a lodging elsewhere,” Everett wrote.
Everett’s daughter was also in the house, sleeping with two other women, when their bed collapsed.
Lincoln got his own room, on the second floor overlooking the diamond. The big bed he slept in is there today in the restored Wills house.
Having safely arrived in Gettysburg, braving the crowds and settling in, he resumed work on the speech. Johnson believes Lincoln was inspired to revise it during the train journey through the vast stretches of rural countryside.
That night several people saw the president writing. He summoned Wills to ask about the ceremonies the next day, then called for him again, saying he wanted to go see Seward, who was staying next door.
He went to see his secretary of state and took his speech with him.
Lincoln liked Seward’s way with words, Johnson reports.
Indeed, Lincoln and Seward had collaborated superbly on Lincoln’s first inaugural address, with Seward laying out good turns of phrase and Lincoln reworking them into poetry.
Some scholars wonder if Seward had the same impact on the Gettysburg Address.
But perhaps the biggest impact came when Lincoln and Seward visited the battlefield the next morning, right before the dedication, according to Johnson.
From Wills’s house, the road west out of Gettysburg went straight, and steeply up, to Seminary Ridge and the area around the Lutheran Theological Seminary. The battle began, and Gen. Reynolds was killed near there on July 1.
It was to Seminary Ridge, and a landscape still scarred by the conflict, that Lincoln and Seward went early on the morning of the dedication. Little is known about what they did, where, exactly, they went, or what Lincoln thought.
But “something happened,” Johnson writes in book. “The memory of Reynolds’ death, perhaps, or the sight of the battle damage . . . inspired him to revisit the speech.”
John Nicolay remembered reporting to the president’s room after breakfast and staying with him until he finished writing just before the procession to the cemetery.
The speech Lincoln had with him when he donned white gloves and mounted his horse outside Wills’s house now had the second “pencil page,” which included 9 1 / 2 lines of one of the greatest speeches in history.
. . . (F)rom these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion . . . w e here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
At Hanover Junction today, the east-west train tracks that took Lincoln to Gettysburg are long gone, and the old track bed has been reclaimed by the woods.
There’s still a line that runs north and south and carries a colorful excursion train, pulled by a replica Civil War-era locomotive. And the old station where Lincoln got off in 1863 and chatted while the cars switched lines has been restored.
The village still is tiny and quiet, and much of the countryside remains a rural landscape of farm fields, barns and aged brick homesteads.
Helen Nicolay, who had written a biography of her father and was the guest of honor that afternoon in 1953, died the following year in Washington and was buried near her second home in New Hampshire.
But the blue and gold state historical marker that she unveiled still is there, although now slightly crooked on its stand.
Seventeen months after the Gettysburg Address, a train bearing Abraham Lincoln came through Hanover Junction again.
This time it was his funeral train taking him back to Illinois to be buried.