Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Great Task

The 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

I am only a month late in sharing some thoughts on the fairly recent and memorable commemoration of the Gettysburg Address.  Even so, perhaps Christmastime is appropriate a time as any to reflect on the past as well as the future.  Just as I did in July, I had the major honor of participating in this venue in a National Park Service uniform.  Having seen much of the behind-the-scenes preparation and dialogue, I can attest to how much planning and coordination was undertaken by my colleagues in this realm.  

As I trekked to my post in the early morning hours of November 19, I took notice of the fact that I was completely alone in the center of the cemetery.  Hundreds of individuals shivered in a lengthy line outside the gates but had not yet been left in.  Determined to make the most of this momentary solitude, I removed my camera and snapped the above photo.  150 years earlier to the hour, citizens were huddled together near the trees before me.  Perhaps the frigid November sky presented them with similarly spectacular shades of pinks and blues.  The moment of isolated serenity was one that was inexplicably genuine.

A days-long series of events and commemorations took place in Gettysburg the week of this momentous anniversary.  One highlight venue included an insightful film preview and panel discussion featuring former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, noted Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust, and documentarian Ric Burns.  Implementing Faust's and Burns' respective book and film as a useful foundation, the trio engaged in an astute and relevant dialogue about understandings of death in wartime--a factor many Americans still attempt to cope with.  Above is their panel discussion in its entirety for your viewing pleasure.

Following the conversation on death and rebirth in the Civil War, our small troupe ventured into the downtown for an open house tour of the historic David Wills House.  Gettysburg attorney Wills spearheaded the creation of a national cemetery on the battlefield with the financial and political backing of Pennsylvania governor Andrew Gregg Curtin (whose great-great-great grandson I had the pleasure of meeting that very night).  As thousands of spectators congregated in a tailgate-style atmosphere beneath this room on the night of November 18, 1863, Abraham Lincoln struggled to craft the finishing touches on his dedicatory remarks for the following morning.  The town square was much quieter and less hectic a century and a half later.  On the morning of November 19, Lincoln emerged from this room with his two page speech in hand.

Participating in a long procession of attendees, Lincoln mounted a horse too short for his lanky stature and rode down the Baltimore Pike to the entrance of the adjacent Evergreen Cemetery.  As one subsequent newspaper recollection noted, bystanders there "found a rough wooden platform erected. Since it was early and they had nothing else to do, they took their seats on the stand, and from there a short time later they witnessed the procession that bore in its midst the figure of the President. It was not imposing, for Lincoln on horseback, with long legs dangling and coat tails flopping, was far from an inspiring sight."  From this same vantage point, spectators could still take into view the debris of battle on Cemetery Hill: artillery lunettes, split wooden crates, an unexploded ordinance.  As one can see, the surrounding scenery is both changed and unchanged.

Despite the cold, I had the pleasure of taking in this same vista as the morning sun rose over the slopes of Cemetery Hill.  Stationed at the Baltimore Street gate of the National Cemetery for much of the day, I had the opportunity to interact with visitors from all over the country as they made the pilgrimage to the hallowed burial grounds.  The morning hours were filled with revealing discussions, intriguing questions, historical mythbusting, colorful reenactors, and the hilarity of watching motorists attempt to parallel park.  I would not have missed it for the world.  Photo courtesy of Lynn Chiocchio Light Heller with Gettysburg Expressions.

In the meantime, a large assortment of individuals from every walk of life began to congregate within the grounds of the cemetery--including a variety of Lincoln presenters and impersonators (of varying quality, including a "hipster Lincoln").  For once, the Robert E. Lee impressionists had a run for their money as far as numerical competition was concerned.  Even so, nobody could doubt the passion, reverence, or enthusiasm of any of those present.  Attendees brought blankets, thermoses with steaming coffee, and folding chairs (in addition to the 5,000 already set up).  Yeah, the weather was cold.  But everybody huddled together and made the best of the moment.  I estimate that some 9,000 people may have been present, substantially less than the recent anniversary of the "I have a dream" speech in Washington.

Nevertheless, scenes such as these I found particularly encouraging.  I spoke with multiple visitors covering numerous generations who experienced several Gettysburg anniversaries over the decades.  A Baby Boomer who heard Dwight Eisenhower speak at the 1963 centennial of the Address was present with his grandchildren this day.  His hopes were that they too would bring their families to subsequent commemorations in years to come.  Indeed, such was a pattern that began in the 1860s with the original battle veterans and their loved ones.

Such was not the only tradition perpetuated on November 19.  The United States Marine Corps Band was present in 2013 just as it was in 1863.  Here, Marine Band Director Colonel Michael Colburn leads his musicians in a moving rendition of "Old Hundred."  As Military News wrote of the 1863 events: 

"In anticipation of the original dedication of the cemetery in early November 1863, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles approved a request by an 'agent of the grounds' to have the Marine Band present at the ceremony. 'The [Navy] Department has no objection to the Band being sent to Gettysburg, Pa., to take part in the ceremonies to this sacred purpose,' Secretary Welles wrote in a letter to the officers of the Marine Corps dated Nov. 3, 1863. The band proceeded by train to Gettysburg, via Baltimore and Hanover Junction, on Nov. 18. Overseen by Leader Francis M. Scala, the 27 members of the band, including John Philip Sousa's father, trombonist Antonio Sousa, serenaded President Lincoln with a lunchtime concert on the train.

The next day, the members of 'The President's Own' performed the hymn 'Old Hundred' during the consecration and dedication of the soldiers' cemetery at Gettysburg, honoring those who served. According to an article in the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, it was played 'with great effect, in all its grand and sublime beauty.'"  The band succeeded in repeating this historical pattern as well.

Among the immense crowds was a sizable contingent of news media from various local and national outlets, including CNN and Fox.  Perched on a little platform only a few yards northeast of the brick speaker's rostrum, the ceremonies were broadcasted live on C-SPAN, PCN, and numerous internet sites.  I have no doubt that the story was shared with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of viewers and readers across the globe.  

Granted, the coverage would have even been more spectacular had President Obama attended the event.  Therein was one of the great disappointments of the ceremony.  For obvious reasons Obama's presence could have offered some rather profound historical and social commentary on the Civil War and its implications that continue to reverberate.  This golden opportunity was lost in his very noticeable absence at a moment when his presidency could have greatly benefited from some positive public outreach.  In short, one could argue that his nonattendance is indicative of the Civil War sesquicentennial as a whole--an ineffectual attempt for the nation to at last come to terms with the pros and cons of the conflict's innumerable legacies.  However, as Forbes' Peter J. Reilly states it, Lincoln's "interpretation that we are dedicated to 'the proposition that all men are created equal' has stood the test of time. . . . It is too bad that President Obama cannot make the ceremony, but just by being our President on that day, he is doing his part to commemorate the promise."  Maybe so.

Regardless, Obama's nonappearance was breaking no historical trend here.  The last sitting president to attend the Gettysburg Address anniversary ceremonies was Rutherford B. Hayes--a Civil War veteran himself.

In lieu of another commander-in-chief's address, President Obama sent a handwritten note that was read by Gettysburg law enforcement park ranger Morgan Brooks.  Part of the president's letter said of Lincoln: "This quintessentially self-made man, fierce in his belief in honest work and the striving spirit at the heart of America, believed that there is something larger at stake than us – that it falls to each generation, collectively, to preserve the freedom for which our predecessors so gallantly fought. And through world war and cold war, revolutions in industry and information, movements for civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, we have."  Perhaps this evolution in liberty is in fact the great legacy of that war.  Our definitions of freedom are under constant scrutiny and reassessment.  In this light, the "great task" of Lincoln's "unfinished work" is left to each of us in our own way.

Despite the suitability of Obama's commentary, the news personnel present went into a photography frenzy when this man stepped up to the podium: James Getty as Abraham Lincoln.  The man probably murmurs the Gettysburg Address in his speech for as many times as he has recited it.

Many of the speeches that day were repetitive, monotone, politically-driven, and lacking any personal connection whatsoever.  For the most part, this did not matter.  Spectators were in the place and the moment.  Remarkably enough, perhaps the best speech of the day was delivered by Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.  Not necessarily known for his warm and cuddly rhetoric on the bench, his heartfelt remarks caught many by surprise.  

He noted that immigrants in the decades following the Civil War came to America "for opportunity. My father, who was the most patriotic man I ever knew, used to say that in the old country, if your father was a shoemaker, you would be a shoemaker. And in America, you could be whatever you were willing to work hard enough to be and had the talent to be."  He then administered the oath of citizenship for new immigrants around the world (which is always my favorite part of the ceremony).  This too was part of Lincoln's vision for the democracy he was struggling to save--opportunity through hard work.  Union was the means of ensuring such potentials.

At least that is what these men believed.  Only that same sense of "dedication" Lincoln spoke of can determine whether or not these aspirations can "long endure" in perpetuity.

The matter rests in this guy's hands--as well as yours.  Merry Christmas!

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