By Wendy Swanson
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
On November 19 of this year, as is the tradition, Gettysburg commemorated the 160th anniversary of Lincoln’s iconic Gettysburg Address. The plan for this year’s ceremony was to honor not only Lincoln and the address itself but also to commemorative the program held 60 years ago. The 2023 program was designed to echo back to that 1963 ceremony, which marked the speech’s centennial.
One aspect of the current program did not mirror the one held in 1963 – that is, the venue. Because of the possibility of a government shutdown – which would have closed down Soldiers National Cemetery, the usual event location – the program was moved to the Majestic Theatre in downtown Gettysburg.
The program did go on – did it ever!
Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, followed in his footsteps, serving in the event’s keynote speaker role, just as he had done in 1963. Ms. Eisenhower echoed many previous keynote speakers who referenced Lincoln’s "unfinished work." She specifically called on “Americans to engage in Lincoln’s unfinished work, to think honestly about what we can do to strengthen our nation.” In this yet another time of division, she stressed the need for “unity.” History has shown that, "in unity," our nation serves as “a beacon of light for the world.”
She remembered too that when, after World War II, her grandfather visited the American cemetery at Normandy, he expressed a feeling of “gratitude.” Looking at the graves of the fallen, he remarked “these boys gave us another chance.” This same thought applies to those at Gettysburg who “gave the last full measure of devotion.”
The speaker observed that those honored by Lincoln in 1863 “gave us another chance to be better than we thought we could be.” She then issued a challenge to those in attendance at the ceremony. “Now it is up to us to recommit ourselves to this chance they gave us.” She added that the morning ceremony itself was a start in that “we do this in some measure by gathering here today.”
She further emphasized the urgency of the matter as she concluded that “our future …our country depends on us to find a common ground with our fellow citizens. Our country’s future depends on our unity, depends on us, each of us.”
Throughout the morning’s program, the impact of the Gettysburg Address on the small Pennsylvania town where Lincoln spoke was quite evident. Ties there to Lincoln and his words run deep. Susan Eisenhower herself went to school here – at the Pitzer schoolhouse, near where General Longstreet had his headquarters. As a schoolgirl, she had the Memorial Day duty of placing flowers on the graves of the fallen, an event she considered to be “sad and dark.” She was not old enough at the time to understand the cause for which these young soldiers gave their lives.
Now she sees things differently. She views Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg as a “eulogy, in recognition of the sacrifice of blood and lives for a common purpose, to preserve a fledgling nation and its great ideals.”Or, in Lincoln’s words, the call was for “a new birth of freedom.” The Revolutionary War “secured American sovereignty” but did not give all equal dignity and chances. The Civil War provided the opportunity to pursue “a more enlightened path.” Now our speaker feels a sense of peace at the gravesites – for she understands that those men who died so young “lie under the light of selflessness and self-sacrifice for us all.”
The keynote address is always the heart of Dedication Day program. However, that is not the only portion of the ceremony to inspire and to move the emotions of those in attendance. To honor the 1963 ceremony, the program included a tribute to Marian Anderson, who participated in the centennial event at the invitation of General Eisenhower. Anderson not only was an awesome vocalist but also a leader and symbol in the civil rights movement. Opera singer J’Nai Bridges replicated Anderson’s performance of two spirituals – “Lead Kindly Light” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
The honor of reciting the Gettysburg Address went to actor Graham Sibley. His entrance on stage – tall, thin, garbed in lawyerly fashion – gave the image of Lincoln, albeit a younger version than seen at many past ceremonies. Think of images of a younger, unshaven Lincoln, say at Cooper Union. His passionate rendition of the Lincoln’s words was heartfelt and memorable. Both these features of the program brought audience members to their feet.
How to top such a morning? At the program’s end, a bugler stood on the stage playing “Taps.” Then - from the back of the theatre - a second bugler joined in, more faintly – providing an echo effect, a truly moving and appropriate way to end a morning of remembrance, dedication and devotion.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons