GETTYSBURG, Pa. — In the days that followed Abraham Lincoln's 272-word speech to thousands of onlookers in this small Pennsylvania farm town, few newspapers in the country immediately reported on the speech.

When they did, explains historian Michael Kraus, it was mostly dour examination filled with misquotes of the 16th president's words.

"There were a lot of mistakes in those first reports. Words weren't heard well. Order was mixed up. The speech didn't appear in every newspaper the next day, or the next day, or the next day," Kraus said from his artifact-filled basement office at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Pittsburgh, where he serves as the curator.

When it finally did, the reviews were sharply critical. "A paper in Boston ripped it to shreds; so did other papers across the North," said Kraus.

Even the local Harrisburg paper, the Harrisburg Patriot and Union, dismissed it as mindless gibberish. "We pass over the silly remarks of the President. For the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them, and that they shall be no more repeated or thought of," it opined.

In truth, it took decades for anyone to think much of the speech, or even think of it all.

"It wasn't until well over a quarter-century later that it began to emerge in the American psyche across the country that this speech was more than a speech; it defined who we were for eternity," said Kraus days before the 155th anniversary of a speech that took less than two minutes to give and nearly 100 years to reach the reverence it holds today.

It is a lesson in understanding the effects of time. Time doesn't always erode and bury the past. Sometimes it helps us better appreciate what was long right in front of us.

"History shows us greatness often isn't appreciated in the moment," Kraus said. "As historians, we are always discovering new powerful things that have happened that have barely been told or passed along."

Lincoln's invitation to Gettysburg was an afterthought of those who organized the dedication of the first national cemetery in the country. "It was just months after the battle," Kraus explained. "Honestly, the big draw for people to attend was Edward Everett, sort of the rock star of the era, who was known for his sweeping oratory skills."

Everett would speak for over two hours that day. Lincoln, who came after him, spoke for two minutes. When he stepped off the stage, he thought he'd failed.

As a re-enactor, Kraus has been to Gettysburg hundreds of times. "You'd think I'd know everything, yet every time I am there, I find out something new, which is why I became a re-enactor, so that I could immerse myself in history and be a better historian," he said.

What a loss our country and our souls would have suffered had the Gettysburg Address been lost to the criticisms, the subsequent brutal battles that followed what happened in the city, the shock of the president's violent death and the chaos of Reconstruction.

It is a speech that defines us, just as this battlefield defines us: The former reminds us to endure; the latter reminds us to never repeat.

In an era where deep political divisions fill our social media feeds, our cable news reports and nearly every aspect of our culture, it is heartening to make the bend on Baltimore Pike and find hundreds and hundreds of young families crowding into the Gettysburg National Park Military Museum.

As Kraus stood in the Soldiers & Sailors Museum in front the largest hand-painted canvas version of the Gettysburg Address — 78 feet wide — he said, "As our country matured and realized the value of Lincoln's words heading into the 20th century, his brief address is often used to comfort us when all other words fail."

The Gettysburg Address, delivered 155 years ago this week, took years to earn glory, but she has held it well. It's a reminder that our power to heal always lies within ourselves.

"The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," said Lincoln in his scratchy high-pitched voice that day here in Gettysburg.

 

— Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner.