Many of my Civil War friends gather every November in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for the Lincoln Forum. It is a wonderful event: a mix of book talks, panel discussions and performances. It is a chance to catch up with old friends and to make new ones. I have been consistently impressed by the level of historical knowledge not just among the historians but among the “average” people present. One of the highlights each year is George Buss’s reading of the Gettysburg Address. George is so like Lincoln that one feels one is in the president’s presence.
So I was a little disappointed to discover, in my Chase research, that Chase was not with Lincoln and Seward and others at Gettysburg in November 1863. David Wills, the tireless organizer of the event, invited Chase to attend, and Chase responded on November 16 as follows:
“It disappoints me greatly to find that imperative public duties make it impossible for me to be present at the consecration of the grounds selected as the last resting place of the soldiers who fell in battle for their country at Gettysburg. It consoles me to think what tears of mingled grief and triumph will fall upon their graves, and what benedictions of the country, saved by their heroism, will make their memories sacred among men.”
Lincoln, apparently, was not aware that Chase did not plan to attend or perhaps wanted to persuade him to reconsider. Lincoln wrote to Chase on November 17 as follows:
“I expected to see you here at cabinet meeting, and to say something about going to Gettysburg. There will be a train to take and return us. The time for starting is not yet fixed; but, when it shall be, I will notify you.”
Interestingly, this letter is not among the Chase papers at the Library of Congress or the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The only copy is a printed copy, in Warden’s 1874 biography of Chase. Did someone, at some point, steal this little letter of Lincoln from the library?
In a letter to his daughter Kate, on November 18, Chase explained why he was in Washington rather than on his way to Pennsylvania:
“The President, with all the Heads except Mr. Stanton and myself, go to Gettysburg today. I should like to go; but cannot leave my work. The Report is hardly begun, and I must finish, if possible, before Congress comes together.”
Chase erred in writing that all but two of the department heads were with Lincoln on the train. The National Republican reported on November 20 that Seward, Blair and Usher were with Lincoln, which means that Chase, Stanton, Bates and Welles were not with Lincoln at Gettysburg.
The report to which Chase referred was his annual report to Congress, due when Congress convened in early December. Unlike a modern secretary of the treasury, who would have a team of talented aides to help him draft such a report, Chase was working largely on his own. The numbers were provided by his staff, but the words were mainly Chase’s own.
Like most Americans, Chase would have read about the events at Gettysburg in the newspapers. Sadly, for a Chase biographer, Chase did not comment on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Sadly, but not surprisingly, for the Gettysburg Address was not viewed at the time as being that important.
To be sure, the Address was printed in the newspapers in November 1863. But it was not memorized by schoolchildren or carved in marble in a monument—not yet. An electronic search of newspapers for 1864 suggests that only one paper, a small paper in Viroqua, Wisconsin, reprinted the Address in that year. It was not until 1867, according to an online search, that the Gettysburg Address started to appear more often in the newspapers. In July 1868, the Gold Hills Daily News, in Nevada, printed the Gettysburg Address and declared that it “should be written in letters of gold on tablets of silver and be an heirloom in every American family for all time.” In October of that same year, in a campaign speech, my man Stanton quoted the Gettysburg Address, and asked his audience whether the Union soldiers had died in vain at Gettysburg.
But to return to Chase: it is not surprising that, busy with his report, and with the nation’s finances, and with a hundred other issues, Chase did not comment on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Chase surely agreed with Lincoln’s central point: that the purposes of the war were both to preserve democracy and to ensure “a new birth of freedom.” So Chase probably read Lincoln’s address, nodded his head in agreement, and got back to his work.