An Address for the Ages
Lincoln, Gettysburg, and the Papers of the Presidents
Fall 1995, Vol. 27, No. 3 | "Honorable Reports"
By Michael P. Musick
The single most memorable document of the Civil War was written because of a battle.  Abraham Lincoln's commemorative speech on November 19, 1863, was delivered over the freshly dug graves of the fallen at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  The manuscript of those stirring words still exists, but it is not at the National Archives.
The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress stands guard over the two pages of what is evidently the first draft of the Gettysburg Address (also called the Nicolay Copy), pages started in ink and finished in pencil.  At least four additional copies of the text in Lincoln's hand survive.  A second is at the Manuscript Division (the Hay Copy) and has on occasion been exhibited at Gettysburg.  The other copies are at the Lincoln bedroom of the White House (the Bliss Copy), Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York (the Bancroft Copy), and the Illinois State Historical Library at Springfield (the Everett Copy).
The soaring language of the address is in sharp contrast to the deliberately legalistic wording of another towering Lincoln document, one of vastly greater import in its time, the Emancipation Proclamation.  Because it is an official state paper, the record copy of the Proclamation, signed by the President, is part of Record Group 11, General Records of the United States Government, in the National Archives.
The status of the personal papers of the Presidents has a long and contentious history.  Suffice it to say that the papers of most of those who held the office before Herbert Hoover are at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.  Notable exceptions for the Civil War era are James Buchanan (whose cache is at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia), and Rutherford B. Hayes (at the Rutherford B. Hayes Library, Fremont, Ohio).
The bulk of most manuscript presidential papers consists of letters addressed to the chief executive, rather than documents written by him.  This is true of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln (97 rolls of microfilm at the Library of Congress), of which the Gettysburg Address is a part.  Comparatively little in the splendid published index to them (Presidents' Papers Index Series, 1960) is under Lincoln's name.  What one finds instead are letters written by political cronies, government officials (or those who aspired to that role), army officers, and almost anyone else who felt impelled to address the man to whom the destiny of the nation had been entrusted.
Also see these related articles:
- The Only Medal
- Missing in Action: Battle Reports— Beyond the Official Records
- Campaigns and Courts-Martial
- Honorable Reports -- Battles, Campaigns, and Skirmishes
Sources: Ray P. Basler, ed., Collected Works of Abrabam Lincoln (1953-1955), and supplements; Harold Holzer, Jr., comp. and ed., Dear Mr. Lincoln (1993); David C. Mearns, The Lincoln Papers (1948), and with Lloyd A. Dunlap, Long Remembered: Facsimiles of the five versions of the Gettysburg Address in the handwriting of Abrabam Lincoln (1963); and Mark E. Neely, The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (1982).