My posting titled "Gettysburg Letter To Lincoln" from November 9th, 2007 describes how the president was invited almost as an afterthought to the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. One of the myths that people believe is that Lincoln was the featured speaker at Gettysburg that day. In truth, the main address was presented by Edward Everett of Massachusetts, the leading orator of the day. His oration lasted for nearly 2 1/2 hours, while Lincoln's brief address took a little more than two minutes to deliver. Yet Lincoln's words remain immortal while Everett's have been forgotten by most.
Lincoln departed for Gettysburg the previous day on November 18, 1863. The trip was a long and arduous one in those days, taking some 16 hours by rail from Washington, D.C., a journey which is little more than two hours today. Probably the most popular legend holds that Lincoln wrote his Address on the back of an envelope while on the train trip to Gettysburg, a story that is almost certainly not true. Lincoln was not a good extemporaneous speaker, as recorded by numerous witnesses to the various times he gave "off the cuff" remarks. Indeed, he politely refused to give an impromptu speech on July 7, 1863 at the celebration of the Union victory at Gettysburg. He addressed the crowd which had gathered outside the White House, and he admitted that "this is the....occasion for a speech. But I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion. ..Having said this much, I will now take the music." Other instances show us that Lincoln was awkward with public speeches when he was not fully prepared to do so. For this reason, it is very doubtful that Lincoln wrote the Address in its entirety during the ride to Gettysburg, in spite of some witnesses who later swore that he wrote the speech on the train.
However, it is true that as late as November 17, Lincoln admitted to James Speed, his Attorney General, that he was only half-finished with his speech for Gettysburg. He even confessed that he was laboring to find the proper words to convey what he wanted to at the ceremony. Lincoln showed a "rough draft" to Speed and apparently to other witnesses as well. This further disproves the legend of the writing on an envelope while on the train.