The coachloads pulling up outside Gettysburg’s Visitor Center really shouldn’t be there. The Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t desired by either side. Yet between 1 and 3 July 1863, two armies intent on tiptoeing round each other were cornered into the bloodiest single skirmish of the American Civil War.

Today, the Pennsylvanian town is a place of battlefield tours, graveyards and monuments; the place where Civil War buffs and schoolchildren come to understand why North and South fought over the expansion of slavery into the West. It was a war of politics and ideology; a war over that most American concept — freedom — and whom it applied to.

And caught in the maelstrom was one man who is associated with Gettysburg more than any other: Abraham Lincoln.

Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded recent film, Lincoln, yielded an Oscar-winning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as the eponymous 16th US president. Gettysburg is the place where you can get an idea of how accurate that portrayal was.

Despite the bloodshed, Gettysburg is arguably best known as a place of words rather than deeds — 272 words, to be precise, delivered at the Consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in November 1863.

Lincoln wasn’t even billed as the main speaker on this solemn occasion — he was just asked to add a few words. What he came out with was the Gettysburg address — one of the most memorable, most stirring speeches in history. It was rooted in principles — the “proposition that all men are created equal”, promises — “these dead shall not have died in vain” — and rousing rhetoric — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.

Inside the vast Visitor Center, the address is played on a loop. It’s almost impossible not to well up while listening to it, but it doesn’t conform to the Hollywood power speech stereotype. One thing that hits home is how un-strident Lincoln was. He had a gentle, reedy, bumpkin-ish voice — something captured wonderfully by Day-Lewis in the film — that somehow managed to convey a message more powerfully than any booming orator’s.

This wasn’t the universal opinion at the time, however. Reading the newspaper coverage of the speech is a real eye-opener. The Chicago Times, for example, reported: ‘The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery remarks.’

The Visitor Center does a far better job than Spielberg of conveying Lincoln’s calculating, wily nature. He was a quiet wrangler — something of a Machiavellian plate-spinner who was prepared to make pragmatic compromises and not be entirely truthful in search of a greater goal.

A complex picture emerges of a man who was not a striding colossus, but a shrewd string-puller. It’s a complexity the proud statues and solemn memorials looking out over acres of battlefields will never manage to convey, but being here, makes you want to find out more. And no doubt head to the cinema, to watch the film too.

Image: Gettysburg Visitor Center. Carl Shuman.

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