By James Johnson
In November of 1863, Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton boarded a train to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He had been invited to attend the dedication of a cemetery for the thousands of soldiers who had been killed in fighting there four months earlier.
Morton did not know it at the time, but he was on his way to witness one of the most famous speeches in American history.
Hardly anyone noticed when the governor left town that day. The Indianapolis Daily Sentinel mentioned it in one short paragraph in small typeface in the middle of page three.
We know from other sources that Morton was on the speaker’s platform at Gettysburg, sitting just behind President Lincoln. Morton wasn’t the only guest on the chilly Thursday morning of Nov. 19. Nearly all the governors of northern states were there.
Lincoln himself was not the main speaker. He had been invited to make a “few appropriate remarks.” The headliner was Edward Everett, a veteran diplomat and professional orator. He did not disappoint when he spoke for nearly two hours. This was not a “twitter” audience. In the days before movies, radio and television, a good public speaker could be a rock star.
When Everett sat down, Lincoln rose from the rocking chair the committee had thoughtfully provided for him.
“Four score and seven years ago,” he began, and the rest is history.
Oliver P. Morton probably listened closely to Lincoln’s words. He was a great admirer of the president. Some have called him “Lincoln’s favorite governor.” The Hoosier was solidly behind the Civil War and always responded quickly and fully to the president’s calls for troops.
The Indiana governor was among the guests invited to accompany Lincoln on the train back to Washington. We can only assume that he did not delay in the nation’s capital. He had much to do back at home. However, there is no mention of his return to Indianapolis in the local papers.
We would expect to find a headline story about the governor’s trip. We would read about how he rushed into the Statehouse exclaiming something like, “Hey, folks, let me tell you about this great speech Lincoln gave at Gettysburg! It was very short, but it was so eloquent and beautiful. I think the kids in school should memorize it!”
No. There was no news story like that. The next time Morton is mentioned in the Daily Sentinel is a few days later when he is reported to be going to Fortress Monroe in Virginia. He had worked out an arrangement with “rebel” commissioners to deliver clothing and provisions to Indiana prisoners of war at Richmond. The story verifies much of what historians have said about the governor’s support of the troops, and it says a good deal about the man himself.
Like Lincoln, Morton was a Republican and almost certainly agreed with those who praised the Gettysburg speech. Today it is a classic study in oratory, praised for its concise and eloquent tribute to fallen soldiers. Only 272 words long, it nevertheless articulates in precise prose the ideals of the nation.
So, seven score and 14 years ago, Indiana Gov. Morton was at Gettysburg. For Morton, the now-famous speech was not history. It was current events, and the current was flowing fast in the middle of the Civil War. He came home just in time to turn around and make that quick trip to Fortress Monroe. But, as important as his mission was, he did not tarry there. He returned to Indiana in time to issue a Thanksgiving Day proclamation.
“Let the people thank and praise Almighty God for the many mercies He has shown us during the past year,” wrote the governor, ”and pray Him, with humble hearts, to still protect, guide and bless us and restore the inestimable blessings of unity and peace to our bleeding and suffering country.”
As he delivered this solemn message, surely Gov. Morton’s mind went back to the words he had heard from Abraham Lincoln on that chilly morning in a Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.
James Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to email@example.com.