BOOK REVIEW: The Greatest Speech Ever: The Remarkable Story of Abraham Lincoln and His Gettysburg Address

By James L. Cotton Jr. | History Publishing Company LLC | $12.76 | 475 pages| 2013

Complete this sentence: The greatest speech ever was ___________. The odds are good that most people who took the time to participate at least thought about the Gettysburg Address. So, if we instinctively place the Gettysburg address among the greatest speeches of all time, what is to be gained by reading Judge Jamie Cotton’s book about the speech and its great author? The gain is like the difference between guessing the right answer and knowing why that answer is right.

The book has an unusual format. It is not a novel, but it is not a dry historical account. It has the markings of the work of a good trial judge; Judge Cotton assembled all of the evidence available so that he and the reader would be in position to judge the greatness of the speech and the man. We see the relevant documents. We hear eyewitness accounts. We are transported to the time and the place.

It is impossible to fully appreciate the speech without some understanding of what had just happened in Gettysburg. It is not an overstatement to say that death and hell visited the small town for several days. The unique format of the book helps us to understand the magnitude of the destruction and carnage in a way that the black-and-white photographs we have seen in history books do not. Before I read the book, my mind told me that the photographs represented isolated examples of man’s worst treatment of his fellow man. Only after reading the book did I understand that every single square yard of real estate in the Gettysburg vicinity was affected by the carnage. When reading about the small town, I could almost smell the stench of the decomposing bodies of men and beasts. One small example of the graphic reality in the book is the reprinted newspaper advertisement: “Men, horses and wagons wanted immediately to bury the dead and cleanse our streets in such a way as to guard against pestilence.”

Judge Cotton easily dispels as a fable the oft-told story that Lincoln wrote the speech on the train ride to the cemetery on a scrap of paper he found on the floor of the passenger car. Before I read the book, I was guilty of believing the fable. I learned from reading the book that the speech was crafted and assembled over a period of weeks. Lincoln most likely wrote part of the speech before he left Washington but knew he could not finish before he visited the battleground and the cemetery. I learned also that the Gettysburg speech was not the first time Lincoln had looked to the Declaration of Independence for key language and guidance.

I learned much also about the man, Lincoln, from reading the book. The unique presentation allowed me to spend “virtual” time in the Lincoln birthplace. It was as if I watched a youthful Abe Lincoln clear fields and build rail fences with his ax. I grew irritated with his father for renting Abe out like a work animal, all the while discouraging any formal education. I was relieved when young Lincoln finally moved away from home to pursue his calling, whatever it might be. I followed along as Abe tried his hand on a flat-bottom riverboat, then as a store-keeper, and finally lawyer and politician. I was disappointed that Lincoln almost fought a duel over a political insult. I saw, heard and almost felt the political whirlwind that surrounded Lincoln and his presidency.

I was introduced to all those who rode the train with Lincoln from Washington to the depot nearest Gettysburg. I had no idea before reading the book that the personal residence where Lincoln spent the night was crowded with some three dozen other persons. For the first time in my life I became aware of the carnival-like atmosphere in Gettysburg the night before the speech as people “caroused, cavorted and meandered” through the streets until midnight, many of them singing and dancing and drinking. I was a spectator as Lincoln responded to the rowdy crowd’s demand for a speech with humorous words that appeased them until the time for the cemetery speech. I became anxious that Lincoln would exhaust himself the night before the speech. It was midnight or after that he was seen retiring to his room carrying a piece of paper.

On the day of the speech, I followed along to the battle site with Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward in the early morning hours. Through Judge Cotton’s words and seemingly through the eyes of the president, I saw the remnants of clothing left from the battle. I saw stacks of wooden coffins and holes left in the ground from the exhumation of bodies from shallow graves.

About 10 a.m. the morning of the speech, I was in the parade to the cemetery. I chuckled, along with others in the crowd, that the president’s horse was so small Lincoln’s feet nearly drug the ground. I could almost see Lincoln on the speakers’ platform as he waited through several other speeches, including a two-hour presentation by the featured speaker. I could almost feel the butterflies in the President’s stomach as the featured speaker closed his remarks.

Then, as Lincoln rose to his feet, I took another perspective. Unlike the rest of the crowd, I had heard these words before. I shifted my attention to the listeners. I focused on fifty or so wounded veterans to whom Lincoln must have directed his remarks. I could imagine tears in some of their eyes as he spoke of the “brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.” I know it was pride reflected on their faces when he said that their struggle was so that this “nation might live.” The mention of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” was unexpected, but appreciated. Everyone present was lifted by his words and surprised when the words ended so quickly, only two minutes or so after they began.

Then, I shifted my attention slowly back to Lincoln. I thought it both fitting and ironic, but sad, if all those things are possible at the same instant, that this great and humble man would question whether his words were well-chosen. I wanted to reassure him. I wanted to applaud the few commentators that appreciated the perfection of the speech. I wanted to scold, or worse, those who twisted his words and accused him of missing the mark. In the end, I had to take solace from the fact that even before I read the book the words of the speech spoke to me.

Judge Cotton’s book has more or less helped me convert an idol into a real-life hero whom I can love and respect despite his imperfections. The book helped me learn, as if by experience, about the battle and its aftermath, and the perfection of the words the president chose to consecrate the cemetery. I am convinced after reading Judge Cotton’s book that the Gettysburg Address was, as is stated in the title, “The Greatest Speech Ever.” The book, in my humble opinion, will truly help any reader understand and appreciate “The Remarkable Story of Abraham Lincoln and His Gettysburg Address.”


ANDREW TILLMAN is chancellor in the 8th Judicial District, which is based in Huntsville, Tenn., and comprised of Union, Claiborne, Campbell, Scott and Fentress counties. He was appointed by Gov. Haslam in April 2013.