When Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin and local attorney (and Gettysburg College alumnus) David Wills set out to create a final resting place for the dead of the Battle of Gettysburg, renowned orator Edward Everett was the clear choice as the dedication ceremony’s keynote speaker. Wills’s formal invitation to President Abraham Lincoln read thus: “It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the Nation, formally set apart these grounds to their Sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.” From that phrase, the Gettysburg Address would be born.
Since that day, the world has both noted and remembered the President’s words. Each year at the National Cemetery, this remembrance is epitomized in the annual Dedication Day ceremony. This event is notable for both its solemn commemoration and its distinguished guest speakers. The keynote address was given this year by humorist and storyteller Garrison Keillor, known best as the host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion.
As those familiar with the annual festivities know, however, this year’s event was bittersweet. For the first time in three decades, Gettysburg notable and Lincoln actor James Getty was not present. Mr. Getty passed away earlier this year and has since been mourned by his family, friends, and fans across the country. There was a moment of silence for Mr. Getty today, followed by the reading of the Gettysburg Address by actor George Buss who, despite having large shoes to fill, played the part wonderfully.
The celebrations began with a performance by the Gettysburg High School Ceremonial Brass Band prior to an introduction by Wendy Allen of the Lincoln Fellowship, the National Anthem, and an invocation by Reverend Doctor Maria Erling of the Gettysburg Seminary.
Ed Clark of the NPS, Joanne Hanley of the Gettysburg Foundation, and Janet Morgan Riggs of Gettysburg College offered brief remarks, and afterward Lincoln Fellowship President Stephen Herr introduced the morning’s special guest, Mr. Keillor. Keillor didn’t disappoint, reading from a compilation of stylistic letters written by literate men who died at Gettysburg. The emotion was as evident in these as in Lincoln’s immortal remarks.
“It was not men writing about destiny and fate,” Keillor said of the letters, “they really were walking through Pennsylvania, and as they walked towards the battle, they were realistic about their chances of being killed. They wanted to have a last word to their families.”
As Keillor eloquently pointed out, the sentiments of the Gettysburg Address are still alive today. “‘The government of the people, by the people, for the people’ is still a struggle. It was never resolved, and never will be, especially the ‘by’ and the ‘for’ part…. But, we can never ever forget what happened at Gettysburg.”
The program brought these same ideas of patriotism and democracy into the present as sixteen prospective American citizens, originally from twelve different countries, were presented for naturalization ceremony. The group took an oath of allegiance, followed by taped remarks from President Obama. As they joined the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, these new Americans lived the “new birth of freedom” promised so many years before.
After a benediction and a performance of “Taps,” I had an opportunity to meet with the day’s celebrity.
“I came here when I was in college,” Keillor said of his previous excursions to Gettysburg. “I didn’t know enough about the battle then to appreciate where I was, and I was put off by the statuary.”
“I think poems should be memorized,” he reflected on the address. “You’ve taken it off the page, it means something to you.” Just like Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” Lincoln’s address is rhythmic, fitting a cadence, aiding in its memorization even today. Memorized or not, the Gettysburg Address and its implications are obviously still relevant today.
Peatman, Jared. The Long Shadow of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2013.