By Wendy Swanson via Lincolnian
Thursday, November 18, 2021
From the Lincoln Group Archives
(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the Lincoln Group’s coverage of the 2011 Dedication Day ceremony in Gettysburg, as provided in our newsletter The Lincolnian. That year marked the 148th anniversary of the Address. The Dedication Day speaker was acclaimed stage and film actor Stephen Lang, who at this year’s ceremony will have the honor of reciting the Gettysburg Address. Ten years ago, Jim Getty, in the persona of Abraham Lincoln, performed that duty. This week on Friday, November 19, the 158th anniversary of the Address, crowds once again will travel to Gettysburg to remember and contemplate those “few appropriate remarks.")
Lincoln’s words, spoken on November 19, 1863, are woven forever into the tapestry that is our nation’s story. Annually on November 19, students of history and our Sixteenth President travel to Pennsylvania to study, interpret and remember the Gettysburg Address. This year, which marked the 148th anniversary of the Address, was no different. The cornerstone of all November 19th remembrances is the morning program at Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery, an event which draws a crowd to Gettysburg year after year.
The program traditionally consists of musical numbers, a talk, a naturalization ceremony and, of course, the recitation of the Address itself by Lincoln as portrayed by James Getty. This year’s keynote speaker, Stephen Lang, spoke of a visit to Rome as an introduction to the concept of “time.” That empire, he mused, although enduring for generations, was “gone in the blink of an eye.” To further confirm this observance, he noted that while touring the ruins, he found “no trace of a living past, no ghosts or spirits, no whisper of the dead.” In contrast to Rome, Lang offered a description of Gettysburg which in and of itself is “a quiet place.”
When touring the battlefield whether “at early dawn or dusk,” the speaker emphasized that one “hears something.” This might be the “whistle of artillery, the snap of a standard or the echoing yell of gray phantoms.” During those three days in July, 1863, this quiet place became “a white hot center of a kiln and that fire has not yet died.” Lang reminded the audience that “our job is to blow on the embers, to keep the fire alive.” Thus, we come to Gettysburg “to dedicate a portion of ourselves and to understand the deeds done and the words spoken here.” Likewise, we “make a commitment to revisit Gettysburg to renew and deepen our understanding of a new birth of freedom.” After all, Lang explained, the citizens of Gettysburg, “by virtue of fate and geography” are the “caretakers for a nation” of this heritage.
Lang also spoke of the meaning of Gettysburg from a more personal view. He often portrays military figures but not just because he has “good posture and an authoritarian voice.” The examination of many acting careers identifies “themes” present in the roles portrayed. Themes present at Gettysburg such as sacrifice, duty, courage and humility long have interested” the speaker. He reflected that such concepts “have to do with the person I aspire to be and have molded who I am.” Gettysburg, not unlike the human character, is a place of contradicting themes.
Moreover, Lang finds Gettysburg, unlike Rome, to be a “place echoing of words spoken and deeds done here.” He also was “humbled to add his voice to the symphony of this hallowed place.” The roster of previous Dedication Day speakers – Mario Cuomo, historians Holzer and Boritt, Ken Burns, Colin Powell, and Shelby Foote, to name a few – could be intimidating. However, Lang knew that all speakers so honored had “absolute knowledge that no matter what one said – no matter how poetic or inspired – they were doomed to come in second at best to the brilliantly crafted address given by our Sixteenth and greatest President.” He noted that after giving his address, Lincoln was “pleased that it was not a total failure.” Lang himself “could hope for no more.”
To end his tribute, Lang quoted Walt Whitman to offer some final words of dedication. Specifically, he chose excerpts from “The Return of the Heroes,” beginning with “sing not of war” and ending “your memories glide silently by me.” Fitting words used to conclude a moving tribute to the words spoken in Gettysburg 148 years earlier.
To read Mr. Whitman’s poem, from Leaves of Grass, in its entirety, see https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/201