PBS special traces Lincoln’s pioneering use of technology and his Gettysburg Address

Nov. 19, 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Though Lincoln stated during his speech that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” his brief, approximately 270-word address has lived on to be remembered as one of the great speeches in American history. Through his address, Lincoln reaffirmed the meaning and purpose of the American democracy, and made his case that preserving the union was the only end that could justify the horrors of the war and slaughter of thousands in the fields and forests around Gettysburg, Pa., during the Civil War.


A PBS special airing on Nov. 19 called Lincoln@Gettysburg traces Lincoln’s pioneering use of the telegraph — the internet of its day — and how he ultimately used that and other technology to help bring together the words he used at Gettysburg that are still remembered 150 years later. Lincoln@Gettysburg shows how, in 1863, Lincoln had become a master of a new frontier, with a “high-tech” command center — the War Department Telegraph Office, America’s first “Situation Room.” The telegraph gave Lincoln the power to wield control across distant battlefields and have his finger on the pulse of the nation (perhaps akin to monitoring social media discussions and trends today). This flow of communication helped shaped the words that he would use in his Gettysburg Address.

The special shows how Lincoln’s interest in new technologies also helped give him control. “Abraham Lincoln recognized that he who controls the conduit also controls the content,” said Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails. Lincoln used these innovations to connect himself to the country.

Highlighted throughout the one-hour special are the significance of several elements: the battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath; the genesis of America’s new National Cemetery; the last-minute invitation for Lincoln to speak; the president’s daylong “special” train from Washington; the assembly of thousands of spectators from all across the union to the little town in the hills of southern Pennsylvania; and the ceremony itself, crowned by the Gettysburg Address.

Lincoln@Gettysburg is narrated by actor David Strathairn (Lincoln), and features a range of interviews from historians, political scientists, and Civil War and military experts, including screenwriter for the award-winning movie Lincoln, Tony Kushner; former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell; historian and author Eric Foner; author Jeff Shaara; political scientist and TV commentator Melissa Harris-Perry and more.

Also in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, an initiative called Learn the Address has begun, challenging everyone across the country — especially students — to learn about and read aloud the Gettysburg Address. The campaign is using social media and videos from public figures, political leaders, entertainers and Lincoln historians reading the Gettysburg Address to encourage people to submit their own videos to the link above. Learn the Address is inspired by the subject of Ken Burns’ upcoming film for PBS called The Address, coming in April 2014. This film tells the story of a tiny school in Putney Vermont, the Greenwood School, where each year the students are encouraged to memorize, practice and recite the Gettysburg Address. In its exploration of the Greenwood School, the film also unlocks the history, context and importance of President Lincoln’s most powerful address.

As an example of some of the well-known figures who have already submitted videos to Learn the Address, here’s a nice take on the address by Lincoln director Steven Spielberg:

Lincoln@Gettysburg premieres Nov. 19 at 9pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

The Address premieres in April 2014 on PBS.


Reenactment of Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address at David Wills house in “Lincoln@Gettysburg”: Courtesy of Tristan Walker