Friday, June 3, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

At the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg

Thousands came out to commemorate Memorial Day here in Gettysburg last Monday and congregated in the Soldiers' National Cemetery. The parade preceding the the ceremony in the burial grounds was colorful, frequently inspiring (especially with the aged veterans), and at times, unusual. Nevertheless, the commemorations were largely fitting and scores of people from all over the nation and the world were present. The photo above, I feel, represents the best of Memorial Day - with Americans of all ages and backgrounds gathering to pay homage in a common purpose of remembering and honoring the past.

The Soldiers' National Cemetery is the final resting place of over 3,500 Civil War dead who were killed amidst the Gettysburg Campaign. At the symbolic and physical center of the semi-circle are the of graves stands the Soldiers' National Monument, which is a memorial not only to the soldiers themselves but the very thing they fought for - Union. Although their portion of the cemetery composes the majority of burials on the site, there are approximately 3,000 veterans from subsequent American conflicts in the annex and surrounding sections. These combatants too fought for many of the same ideals of their 1860s predecessors.

One of the first portions of the parade to enter the National Cemetery were Confederate Living Historians. However, the burial place was intended solely for the Federal dead of the battle. The vast majority of Confederates who perished at Gettysburg remained on the field where they had fallen for nearly a decade. Not until the 1870s were many of them relocated to Richmond, Virginia's Hollywood Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina, Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Historians are aware of approximately ten southerners who were misidentified and laid to rest in an all "Yankee" cemetery.

This sight was perhaps the most curious of scenes from the parade. I will allow you to form your own opinion. I will say, however, the photo led to some interesting philosophical and social questions amongst some of my friends. How might you incorporate this image in the historical context of Memorial Day?

Mr. James Getty as Abraham Lincoln is a common facet of Memorial Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies throughout Gettysburg. For several decades now, he has been known as one of the most prominent Lincoln Presenters. His presentation of the Gettysburg Address never ceases to entertain and enlighten.

A great color guard of New York Fire Zouaves. (Unfortunately, the flags are blocking their pretty awesome 1860s fire helmets.)

An interesting array of reenactors portraying soldiers from numerous American Wars, including the Revolution, War of 1812, Mexican War, and World Wars.

The array of Living Historians chronicled Korea through Vietnam as well.

Former and current Marines enter the gates of the National Cemetery.

A young sailor depicting a WWII serviceman (who obviously received loving recognition from some young lady).

A reenactor depicting a Vietnam-era paratrooper of the 101st Airborne.

Another rather unusual sight was a Robert E. Lee reenactor driving a silver convertible with the Stars and Bars and Virginia State Flag fluttering from the car. (Also note the Lee license plate.) This one definitely had more horsepower than Lee's original Traveller. One again, what are we to take from this manner of historical commemoration?

A Confederate officer salutes veterans watching the parade.

Another encouraging scene was young people, including these Boy Scouts, laying flags, flowers, and wreaths upon the graves of the veterans. What a great way to nurture a personal connection to this historic site.

Vice Admiral John M. Mateczum was the main speaker at the Memorial Service. He delivered a speech which was quite good and personal. In his address, he remembered a former aid who volunteered to do a tour duty in the Middle East and was unfortunately killed in the line of duty. It is the common sacrifice of combatants from multiple American Wars which draw us to sacred sites such as Gettysburg. We yearn for that personal connection to our past as well as our present.

Just when I thought I saw plenty of colorful scenes that Memorial Day, I traversed to the Pennsylvania Monument on the battlefield. There, the CNN Express, Fox News, and scores of other news organizations awaited the arrival of Sarah Palin and her family. (She largely evaded their presence, however.) What can we learn from all of these photos? I'm sure each of us have our own answer. Likewise, I think it is safe to say that Gettysburg and other National Parks and historic sites represent very different things to very different people. But this is what the National Parks are all about - being able to pilgrimage to a place to reflect, connect, promote, and/or enjoy for diverse reasons. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on commemoration and memory.

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