“I Heard Lincoln That Day” 

by William Rathvon 

William Rathvon was 9 years old on 11/19/1863 when Abraham Lincoln gave The Gettysburg Address.

Rathvon was visiting the family farm in Gettysburg and was in attendance for the speech getting as close as 15 feet from Lincoln.  This is the only audio recording of a witness to the Gettysburg Address. Recorded in 1938.

      Listen to audio here as you read it below (20 min).

Because as a school boy I was in the little town of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania some 75 years ago, I am privileged to tell you today what I then heard and saw when Abraham Lincoln, the wartime president of the United States delivered his immortal address at the dedication of the National Cemetery. An event that will live in the hearts of men so long as brotherly love, forgiveness, faith and compassion shall endure.

Gettysburg was then a quiet orderly borough of about three thousand people. Typically Pennsylvanian, pristine, loyal, law-abiding and home loving.

One July morning, without any warning, their tranquil village was made the center of one of the fiercest conflicts of inter-nursing warfare that modern world has ever known.

It was the decisive battle of the Civil War, the North against the South, brother against brother, each fighting for what he believed was right in the sight of God and man.

The fertile hills and meadows round about and the shaded streets of the town itself were for three days the scene of the conflict which surged back and forth where the defending armies of the North and the invading hosts of the South battled and struggled for victory.

At the close of the third day’s battle, the Confederate Army retreated to the South leaving the countryside strewn with dead and wounded.

The loss on both sides was known to be upwards of fifty thousand.

From my childhood the word Gettysburg was as familiar to me as that of my own hometown, Lancaster, some 40 miles away.

Family romance clustered around the name for my mother was born, raised and married in Gettysburg and it was there she met my father, who was then a student of Pennsylvania College, now the oldest Lutheran college in the United States, established in Gettysburg in 1832.

As a boy, my summer vacations were spent there and in July 1863, shortly after the battle, I wandered over the battlefield with two other lads, gathering gruesome mementos of the fearful three days carnage

When it was known that on a certain day in November, four months after the battle, that President Lincoln, Old Abe, as we boys affectionately called him, was to be in Gettysburg, I was excused from my duties at school and accompanied my family at least to see the President and perhaps to hear what he had to say.

My uncle lived several miles from the town, and on the second day of the battle, his house was struck by an enemy shell which passed through the living room and lodged unexploded in the wall.

In the succeeding years boy-like, I pointed it out to my companions with an air of superiority, and for all I know the shell is still to be seen in the wall of the house.

On one day during the battle, my uncle’s home was the headquarters of the Confederate General Ewell, and when he took possession of it, my aunt seized her youngest child and on her own horse rode down to her mother’s home a mile away through the midst of the advancing battalions.

The sight of an unprotected woman riding serenely in the dusk of an early evening with a little child in her arms in the midst of the crowd of boisterous soldiers was so startling and incongruous that as she passed, one of the veterans shouted, “Good Lord, boys she’s carrying a baby!”

Next morning, she remembered that she’d forgotten to bring the family Bible, the most treasured possession of her household, so she fearlessly went back alone.

On the floor of the living room she found General Ewell stretched out sound asleep with his head on the Bible, as a pillow.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she snatched the Bible from under the General’s head and made her escape down the road unpursued and reached her father’s home in safety without annoyance from the advancing enemy, an evidence of Southern chivalry shown to an unprotected woman even in the heat of Civil War.

On my uncle’s farm, there was a small pond fed by springs in which we boys learned to swim.

Sometime after the battle, while exploring the bottom of the pond, we found a number of muskets and other equipment that were thrown away by the retreating army when hard-pressed.

As we figured it out, the retreating soldier, in throwing his musket into the pond made it count two ways: it was kept from falling into the hands of the enemy, and he could run harder and faster without his heavy gun and ammunition.

As the town itself changed hands several times during the three days battle, bullet holes may still be seen where street fighting took place.

During one such encounter, two young soldiers hotly pursued, rushed into my grandmother’s kitchen and begged that she hide them from the troopers close behind.

She never hesitated a moment, but led them up the back stairway to the large bedroom in the front of the house.

Her courage and ingenuity saved them, and afterwards I was fond of hearing her tell how she crowded one of them into the open fireplace and quickly replaced the screen of wallpaper, which in those days covered the bare fireplace in the summertime.

The other boy in blue, she hid under the feather bed, which she had barely smoothed out, before the searching party burst into the house from cellar to garret (attic) they went, but no trace of the missing fugitives did they find in that well-ordered home.

My grandmother was resourceful and not easily perturbed, besides, being a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln.

Soon after the battle, the Federal Government provided the National Cemetery on the battlefield, where thousands were buried friend and foe, side by side.

To dedicate this open-air mausoleum, came the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, whose memory will ever be honored wherever the virtues of freedom, courage, love for rightness and righteousness, fidelity and compassion are cherished among men and nations.

He arrived from Washington the day before the dedication and was entertained at the home of Judge David Wills, the leading citizen and neighbor of my grandparents.

In the evening, with a number of my cronies, I helped swell the crowd that gathered on the sidewalk and street in front of Judge Will’s home hoping the President might appear, but we only got a glimpse of his familiar figure so we decided to give him a serenade, and sang without accompaniment the war songs that were as well known in those days as “Auld Lang Syne” or “Home Sweet Home.”

Some of them I can recall may be remembered by many now within the sound of my voice such as, “Rally Round the Flag Boys,” “Tenting on the Old Campground,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Boys are Marching,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and many other stirring heirs that were sung and played at the firesides of the homes of the law.

Bright and early the next morning, I was in the center square of the town where the procession was to form for the Cemetery Hill, where the speaking was to take place.

Here a tract of 17 acres had been purchased with the Governors of 17 loyal states and the graves of the fallen were suitably marked friend and foe alike. Nor was the Unknown Soldier forgotten.

At the head of the procession, preceded by a mounted military band, the first I had ever seen, rode the President.

He was mounted on a grey horse of medium size, which accentuated his unusual height, his long legs reaching too near the ground for either grace or good horsemanship.

But however uncouth was his figure in the eyes of the crowd, in their hearts he was beloved for his transcendent greatness, his humility, his courage, and his wisdom in the government of the Nation, wrecked and torn in the throes of a Civil War.

The President was escorted to the cemetery by many distinguished officers of the Army, representatives of foreign countries, military and civic organizations, and the surging crowds of patriotic citizens estimated at twenty thousand.

After the long eloquent oration of Honorable Edward Everett of Massachusetts, conceded to be the most finished orator of his day, Lincoln arose, and with a manner serious, almost of sadness, gave his brief address, that rang from the hills of Gettysburg around the world and back many times and will ever continue to reverberate in the hearts and minds of all mankind where freedom, forgiveness, tenderness, and strength are cherished.

During its delivery with one or two other lads I had worked my way under the platform and wiggled through the crowd in front until I stood within 15 feet of Mister Lincoln and looked up into his serious face.

A rough board platform four or five feet high had been built from which the president spoke across the front, over the rail, behind which he stood was draped the nation’s flag, the Stars and Stripes, Full Glory, as the soldiers gallantly called it.

I joined heartily in the applause that followed, which was less pronounced than that given Mister Everett’s address which was sparkling in its eloquence and touching in its appeal.

Mister Everett himself was one of the few who having heard Lincoln’s words knew they were imperishable and he so expressed himself to the President as he sat down.

Later he wrote Mister Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

Although I listened intently to every word the President uttered and heard it clearly, boy-like I could not recall any of it afterwards.

But had any of my companions spoken slightingly of it there would have been a junior battle of Gettysburg then and there, for any hint or intimation that Old Abe, as we affectionately called him, was deficient or delinquent in any respect would have meant a scrap. So deep-seated was our youthful loyalty.

Perhaps no address of equal length has been more widely published and translated into more languages than the one I heard given by President Lincoln on that November day 75 years ago.

It will bear repetition even now, after more than three score years and ten have passed. It needs no eloquence or I could not attempt to read it to you.

There’s no address in the english language that could better exemplify the words of the english poet Southey written a century ago.

“Is is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed the deeper they burn.”

Mister Lincoln said…

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great Civil War, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion –  that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

His speech at Gettysburg is now conceded to an honored place among the immortal masterpieces of America’s oratory of all time.

One of his biographers who knew him personally, Isaac M. Arnold said of Mister Lincoln’s brief dedicatory speech, “These twenty lines contain more than many a volume.”

There’s nothing finer in Fischer Aims oration on the death of Washington nor in the masterly address of Daniel Webster in laying the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument.

When Mister Lincoln uttered the words, “The world will little note nor longer remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here,” he seemed so absorbed in the heroic sacrifices of the soldiers as to utterly forget himself.

But his hearers were fully conscious that he was the greatest actor in all the drama and that he was uttering words that would live as long as the language.

With the lapse of time the appreciation of President Lincoln’s address has increased among others than his own countrymen.

Fifty years after I was a schoolboy in Gettysburg and heard each word of it as it dropped from his lips, Lord Curzon, an imminent Englishman Earl of Kedleston, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, delivered before the University of Cambridge an address on modern parliamentary eloquence.

In the course of his remarks he referred to what he considered the three supreme masterpieces of English eloquence: the Toast of William Pitt after the Victory at Trafalgar and two of Lincoln’s speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural.

In speaking of this address he said, “The Gettysburg Address is far more than a pleasing piece of English composition. It is a pure well of English undefiled. It sets one to inquiring with nothing short of wonder, ‘How knoweth this man letters, never having learned?’ The more closely the address is analyzed, the more one must confess astonishment at its choice of words, the precision of thought, its simplicity, directness and effectiveness.”

In view of what is happening in some countries today by way of governmental suppression and interference with established religion, it is interesting to note Mister Lincoln’s views when asked to regulate the patriotic zeal of some of the churches.

He said on January 2, 1863, “The United States government must not as by this order undertake to run the churches when an individual in church or out of it becomes dangerous to the public interest. He must be checked, but let the churches as such take care of it themselves. It will not do for the United States to appoint trustees, supervisors or other agents for the churches.”

Mister Lincoln was not a church man but he was a Christian in the truest sense of the word. His religion has from the first, been the subject of some controversy.

We know that he implicitly believed in God’s infinite goodness and power and love, and that he sought on his knees divine guidance in every crisis or emergency, that he had great respect for organized religion, so he made a clear distinction between churchianity and christianity.

It has never been denied that he was a student of the Bible from his childhood, and humbly and reverently believed in its teachings.

Although he never joined the church, he once said, “Whenever any church will inscribe over its altar as a qualification for membership to save your statement of the substance of the law and gospel, thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself, that church will I join with all my heart and soul.”

When in the early morning of April 14, 1865, the news of Mister Lincoln’s assassination was flashed from ocean to ocean, it was heard by a nation bowed in grief.

Among the countless expressions of loss that were then uttered, perhaps none was more heartfelt than the words of our own poet James Russell Lowell who wrote…

“Never before that startled April morning did such multitudes of men shed tears for the death of one they had never seen. As if with him the friendly presence had been taken away from their lives, leaving them colder and darker. Never was funeral panegyric so eloquent as the silent look of sympathy which strangers exchanged when they met on that day. Their common manhood had lost the kinsmen.”

All of which recorded my own feelings.

When a lad and so let me here add the word to the words of Mister Lowell a reminder to the youth of every nation.

You may search pages of modern history from end to end and can find no nobler example of unselfish devotion to duty, of courageous citizenship, and of steadfast adherence to principle, than in the life of Abraham Lincoln.

A life that will never die but which will go on and on forever.