A week ago this morning I was seated on a folding chair on the grounds of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park. I had come to Gettysburg thanks to an invitation from Gettysburg Presbyterian Church to deliver their annual “Gettysburg Addresses Lincoln” lecture, but I had most of the day to kill before my 4:00 p.m. talk, and I took advantage of the free time to join the audience of two thousand or so who attended a commemorative program observing the 153rd anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It was an absolutely glorious morning—the sky was a bright clear blue, the thermometer registered sixty degrees, and a smattering of autumn color still decorated the cemetery. I soaked up the sun and took notes on how Americans remember their past and draw hope for the future. For a U. S. historian interested in popular memory, this was better than a day at the beach.
Gettysburg has been commemorating the anniversary of Lincoln’s most famous speech since 1938. It would be interesting to research how the ritual has changed over time. By definition, historical commemoration exists at the intersection of past and present. We gather, in theory, to remember the past as it actually was, but because we look backward through contemporary lenses, what we see and how we respond to it says a lot about our own day. This was surely true of last Saturday’s ceremony, although the specific ways that it was true would be clearer if I could compare it with previous celebrations.
At any rate, I am doubtful that the crowd who gathered in 1938 was full of Civil-War reenactors—men and women, boys and girls decked out for the occasion in elaborate period costumes. The whole town was crawling with them. Gettysburg has become a mecca for reenactors, and thousands make the pilgrimage every November 19th. They crowded the sidewalks, filled the restaurants, and added considerably to the waiting lines at the public restrooms. As I found an empty folding chair near the back at the cemetery commemoration, I found myself next to a near eighty-year-old Union private. He left halfway through the program and was replaced by two senior citizens in hoopskirts and bonnets. (Note, one of the many ways in which Civil War reenactment is historically inaccurate is in the age distribution of participants. One half of the American population was under twenty years old when the Civil War erupted, and half of Civil War soldiers were twenty-five or younger. The audience in the cemetery was considerably more “experienced,” and the gathering had a bit of a 19th-century AARP feel to it.)
I also doubt that the 1938 celebration opened with a Buddhist prayer, as last Saturday’s did. As our society becomes more and more religiously diverse, it becomes increasingly difficult to acknowledge our religious pluralism without trivializing our religious differences. If you believe that all religious belief systems lead to God, then there is no problem. But if you think that the substance of our faith convictions matters—as the adherents of most of the major world religions have always insisted—then it can be hard to make sense of a program framed by a Buddhist “invocation” and a Presbyterian benediction. I’m not sure what I would have done had I been in the organizers’ shoes, but I think I would have recommending dropping the prayers altogether. When the military cemetery was dedicated 153 years ago, the program opened with a prayer by the Reverend T. H. Stockton (four times longer than Lincoln’s remarks), but almost no one remembers that today.
Even in the absence of formal prayers, there would still have been a religious feel to the gathering. One of the things that struck me most was the number of times that the various speakers on the platform used religious language in describing the final resting place of those who fell at Gettysburg. “We are gathered together in a holy place,” observed the Buddhist sensei. Welcome to “these hallowed grounds,” said the military park superintendent. This is a “sacred place,” intoned the president of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania. The language of civil religion—equal parts inspirational and blasphemous—was ubiquitous.
Then came the keynote speaker. It is one of the hallmarks of contemporary America that we conflate celebrity with authority and expertise. The featured speaker in 1863 had not been Abraham Lincoln but Harvard professor Edward Everett, one of the foremost scholars of his day. The featured speaker 153 years later was actor Levar Burton, known for his roles in Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and PBS’s Reading Rainbow. In fairness to Burton, I thought his address was the highlight of the 90-minute program. Burton began by warning the audience that his heart was heavy, and that he had come to Gettysburg “to share the discomfort of my soul.” “The promise of America has yet to be delivered to too many” Americans, he lamented. “We are indeed a house divided,” confronting a “crisis with the power to rend us asunder.” The actor then went on to speak with great feeling about his mother’s heroic sacrifices on his behalf, and her tireless efforts to prepare him for life as a black male in America. “What part of ‘all men are created equal’ have we failed to understand?” he asked the audience.
Burton was followed on the stage by George Buss, a.k.a. Abraham Lincoln, who gave a far too rapid rendition of Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address. (“Speak very slowly” was Lincoln’s main advice to public speakers.) Once “President Lincoln” had taken his seat, a bass soloist bellowed out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then, in one of the most impressive moments of the morning, fourteen candidates for U. S. citizenship took part in a naturalization ceremony. After taped remarks from President Obama, the Gettysburg High School band played “God Bless America,” a Protestant pastor offered a closing prayer, and a lone bugler played “Taps.”
As is often the case with historical commemorations, the program was better at inspiring the audience than at making us think. The exception to this rule was Levar Burton, although he still pulled his punches, and the loudest ovation he received came with his concluding “God bless America.” Once the last strain of “Taps” had faded, the crowd rushed to grab lunch before a 1:00 parade featuring thousands of Civil-War reenactors.
I have shared already my misgivings (here and here) about the whole reenactment phenomenon. My day in Gettysburg mostly reinforced them. For much of the morning, the audience had listened as Levar Burton talked about the persistence of racial injustice in America, heard again Abraham Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom,” and listened to a popular anthem—penned by the wife of an ardent abolitionist—imploring Union soldiers to give their lives to make others free. The audience listened politely, clapped heartily, and adjourned to watch a parade of thousands of almost exclusively white reenactors who have little place for race in their memory of the Civil War they are supposedly recreating.