On Tuesday, November 20th, CWI Fellow Ryan Bilger sat down with Gettysburg College’s President, Janet Morgan Riggs, to discuss her Dedication Day Speech which she delivered the previous morning. The goal of her speech, Riggs explained, was to give Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address relevance for each of us today. She did this by focusing on inequality and justice in our world today, speaking not to politics, but to basic humanity. These are themes she and Gettysburg College try to discuss with students, encouraging them to be conscientious leaders who affect positive change in the world. President Riggs, who retires at the end of this school year, will be thoroughly missed by all who have been touched by her own thoughtful leadership.
If you missed this year’s Dedication Day ceremony and would like to watch it, click here.
When I was in high school, I read The Things They Carried for my English class. It is a fiction book about the Vietnam War written by a Vietnam veteran. The author, Tim O’Brien, had the life experiences to write an autobiography based on true events, but he chose fiction as his vehicle. He explains this choice in one of the chapters in his book. O’Brien stated that, in an ironic way, fiction allowed him to share more truth than reality. His made-up stories allowed him to create the feelings and meanings of the war that his real experiences couldn’t get across for people who had not lived them. This is an idea that has stuck with me ever since, and it has been on my mind a lot lately.
This year, I was asked to work on a special project for the Civil War Institute that involves creating a new wayside for the Gettysburg battlefield. Another student and I have partnered with Gettysburg NPS to write a wayside for the Virginia Memorial. This is a very daunting task, especially in today’s political climate, which has made me all the more determined to do history and the monument justice. A lot of what I have been sifting through for the monument deals with Civil War memory, especially Gettysburg and Confederate memory. This is why I have kept going back to The Things They Carried. Like O’Brien’s book, the Virginia Monument is a fictitious image of a war scene. It was not meant to depict an actual scene of war but to share important feelings. The big questions for me have been what those intended feelings were and how they have shaped our memory of Confederate involvement at Gettysburg.
The speeches from the monument’s dedication answered many of my contextual questions. The memorial was revealed in June of 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I. The dedication speakers were quick to connect the monument’s significance to war efforts. The country needed men to enlist and families to support the war effort from home. The Virginia Memorial became a tool for inspiring those sacrifices. Each speaker explained that by remembering the martial valor of Virginians and their dedication to the Confederacy, Americans would find an example of what would be required of them in World War I. “We treasure the heroic deeds and inspiring example of all the brave soldiers living and dead who gave to us and to the world a new standard of American manhood,” proclaimed Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.
This new standard of manhood was also used to reunite the country. Dedication speakers repeatedly stressed the greatness of American unity after such great sectional strife. Standing in the crowd on June 8, 1917 were Union and Confederate veterans. 54 years earlier, those same veterans had faced each other on opposite sides of the field for Pickett’s Charge with the intention to kill. Something like that doesn’t go away overnight. The design of the Virginia Memorial was an attempt to smooth over the still-lingering scars of war through a celebration of martial manhood. The Virginians at the base of the memorial represent the ideal soldiers. Although each man is from a different military branch, they are all strong and manly. Their faces and stances show a mixture of anxiety and determination. They are facing great odds, but they will go forward. Lee towers above the group, the picture of stoicism. He is calm and collected, even in the face of battle. At the time, he was also a reminder of Christian ideals. This was a man who believed God had a plan for him and allowed that faith to keep him steadfast. These were values that could be appreciated by men everywhere, regardless of their war loyalties. Those Union and Confederate veterans could stand beside each other in the crowd that June day and find common ground.
How these messages affect our memory of Gettysburg and the Confederacy is interesting. On the one hand, the romantic aspect of the Virginia Memorial obscures many realities. For example, the focus on the military side of war often excludes the Confederate cause. Like the Virginia Memorial, our conversations often jump right into the fight and skip past why the men were there fighting. The Confederacy was formed to protect the right to own slaves as property. The soldiers themselves had different reasons for fighting, but the ultimate Confederate goal was to successfully secede and protect slavery. We don’t see that in the monument, and subsequently, most of us aren’t having that conversation when we visit the battlefield. The Virginia Memorial also adds to the misconception that Gettysburg was the end of the Confederacy. When I talk to many of my non-history friends, they think that Gettysburg spelled the end for the Confederacy and that Appomattox was right around the corner. They are shocked when I tell them that the war continued for two more years after Gettysburg. Clearly, Gettysburg didn’t end the Confederacy if they could keep going for two years; it was just one of their defeats. However, the Virginia Memorial’s depiction of the soldiers as grimly determined to do their duty even though they knew they would lose makes Pickett’s Charge the last stand of the Confederacy in popular memory.
On the other hand, the Virginia Memorial also reveals a lot about Americans at the time. Seeing the celebration of martial manhood reminds us of the importance of rigid gender roles at the time. We can see that men were expected to defend their cause and prove their worth on the battlefield. The absence of slavery representation tells us that Americans have always been uncomfortable with our past connection to the institution. It also shows us that unification was important above all else. Even though the Union won, Northerners allowed Southerners to place this shrine of Confederate ideals on the Gettysburg battlefield. Northerners allowed Lee to top this monument in a somewhat defiant location that allows him to stare down Union General Meade. Northerners even accepted speeches which hailed Virginians of the Confederacy as the ultimate examples of ideal soldiers and men. Virginians compromised by displaying their state flag on the monument instead of the Confederate flag. They also made several revisions to the inscription at the base in an attempt to find a less inflammatory message. Both sides were willing to make concessions for the goal of unity. That’s the legacy that the Virginia Memorial gives us. We still have a lot of work to do as a nation, and we always will, but we treasure our unity and will always fight for that.
Dugan, David. 15-23-0327: Virginia Memorial. August 17, 2015. In Wikimedia Commons. Accessed November 13, 2017.
Foster, Gaines M. Ghosts of the Confederacy : Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2014. Accessed November 15, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Gallagher, Gary W., and Nolan, Alan T. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000. Accessed November 15, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Ingraham, William M. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By Hon. William M. Ingraham, Assistant Secretary of War.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Mariner Books, 2009.
Przyblek, Leslie A. Soldiers to Science: Changing Confederate Ideals in the Public Sculpture of Frederick William Sievers.
Stuart, Henry Carter. “Address at the Dedication of the Virginia Memorial at Gettysburg, Friday, June 8, 1917 By His Excellency Henry Carter Stuart, Governor of Virginia.” Address, Dedication of Virginia Memorial, Virginia Memorial, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1917.
At Dedication Day, we remember Lincoln’s dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery. At the dedication ceremony, Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, a speech that has become enshrined in the American consciousness. In just a few short minutes, Lincoln delivered a speech that evoked the spirit of the Founding Fathers, honored the sacrifice of the dead, and challenged the living to commit themselves to the young nation and the principles upon which it was founded. Through the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln shaped the collective memory of the Civil War and of American ideals.
Monuments and wayside markers also shape public memory. When asked to develop a wayside marker for Little Round Top, my colleague, Savannah, and I hoped to fully honor the sacrifice of the 20th Maine men by avoiding a purely romantic interpretation of their heroism and instead acknowledging their humanness. Like the rest of us, the Maine men were imperfect. Though many fought for high ideals like patriotism and duty, others fought for less noble reasons. They fought because desertion was a crime, because everyone else did, or because they craved adventure. We wanted our wayside to show that the men who fought on Little Round Top were individuals with their own lives and motivations.
Whatever their reasons for fighting, the Maine men experienced the brutal reality of war on Little Round Top. We felt that it would do these men a disservice if we used our wayside to tell a comfortable tale about heroic action or tactical maneuvers. Instead, we hoped to develop a wayside that illustrated the savagery of war. Men were killed indiscriminately, their bodies strewn across the rocks. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain described the men, “torn and broken, staggering, creeping, quivering on the earth, and dead faces with strangely fixed eyes staring stark into the sky.”
The battle at Little Round Top was incredibly brutal, but in no way did we want to suggest that the casualties were senseless. The 20th Maine men died for a purpose much higher than themselves. They were sacrificed for the freedom of millions of enslaved people and for the preservation of a country that was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Gettysburg Address is surrounded by myths. It is a widely-held belief that Lincoln wrote the Address on the back of an envelope on the train to Gettysburg. This story remains popular in the public imagination because people want to remember Lincoln as a common man with a great gift that allowed him to assume the highest office in the United States. The ways in which people alter memory are often reflective of how they want to remember historic moments.
Many want to remember Little Round Top as the place where Colonel Chamberlain led the 20th Maine to a victory that saved the Union. Popular culture, specifically the movie Gettysburg, has reinforced this version of events in the nation’s collective memory. When designing our wayside, Savannah and I had to contend with the preconceptions that tourists bring to Little Round Top.There is no doubt that Joshua Chamberlain was an able leader, but he was nothing without the dedication of his men. The 20th Maine did not save the Union, but it was one of many vital parts that contributed to the Union victory. We hope to use our wayside to complicate the traditional story of the 20th Maine.
Making our vision for the wayside text a reality proved to be a challenge. Savannah and I were given 250 words to tell a nuanced version of the events at Little Round Top, and it seemed an impossible task. But then we remembered the Gettysburg Address. In 272 words, Abraham Lincoln both inspired and redefined the nation. Surely, we could give park visitors a better understanding of the 20th Maine men and their fight for a hilltop.
Last Friday, CWI Fellows Abigail Cocco ’19 and Ryan Bilger ’19 interviewed renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer about his upcoming Dedication Day speech at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19th. Holzer discussed various aspects of Civil War memory as well as Lincoln’s legacy in contemporary society. Currently the Jonathan F. Fanton Director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, Holzer has authored, co-authored, or edited 52 books, the most recent being Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Mr. Holzer was also a featured speaker at the Civil War Institute’s annual summer conference this past June. You can watch his CWI talk here.
Holzer’s Dedication Day speech will take place at 10:30 a.m. at the rostrum in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg National Military Park, following a 10:00 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony at the Soldiers’ National Monument. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit www.lincolnfellowship.org.
This Saturday past brought with it an electric sort of chill, the kind fueled by a driving breeze that lifts your jacket, steals past your socks and up your legs, worms its way through gaps in scarves and gloves, and leaves you feeling naked and afraid and alive in ways that no one else can see. The kind of wind that whisks away complicity and surety, leaving you with nothing but a burning compulsion to do something that will reignite your humanity, your belief in goodness, your claim to a kind life. For those who attended, the Dedication Day ceremony in the National Cemetery trembled with the same terrible power. This year, there was something dreadfully eerie about coming together to honor men slain in the struggle to prove that a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could endure terrible division and betrayal between its countrymen. The speechmaking, no matter its tenor, could not escape the gravity of the question on everyone’s mind: what does the future hold for America, and how can we make sure it won’t undo the already unfinished work for which our forefathers died?
That is not to say that many did not try desperately to drown out the unpleasant facts of the hour with platitudes. And perhaps that response was to be expected. These are uncertain times, and before an uncertain audience some speakers said things that would have been reassuring a year or two ago. They spoke triumphantly of the honor in the fight, of the eternal and resonating success of the Union. Of the dignity of the nation that emerged from the war, battered and bruised, but energized. They spoke of the “great work” engaged at Gettysburg through the warm lens of nostalgia like it was fairy tale, complete with the token happy ending, written just for us. Like the great work was finished, and all that remained was to remember. Like there was, conveniently, nothing to fear and nothing to discuss.
The week before Dedication Day I had the privilege of interviewing keynote speaker and Emmy Award-winning actor LeVar Burton, who has starred in Roots, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Reading Rainbow. I knew this was the perfect opportunity to engage in a serious dialogue about race, as the most dramatic and consequential presidential elections had been decided just a week previous, and I was thrilled when Mr. Burton answered all of my questions with poise and understanding, charging head-on into difficult but immensely relevant topics. The messages he conveyed are powerful and will stick with me as I navigate the political climate of the next four years (and beyond), and his call to action has encouraged me to seek meaningful and effective ways of promoting tolerance and pursuing change. I know his words will have the same effect on many of you.
I extend my sincerest thanks to Mr. Burton not only for agreeing to be interviewed, but for giving all of us something to think about. Here is what he said.
The Gettysburg Compiler: Considering the historical significance of Gettysburg and the role of race in the Civil War, how can we create and foster dialogue about race on campus after this month’s election results?
LeVar Burton: My decision since [the election] has been to rededicate myself to the work I consider my life’s mission. In the service of that, I’ve promised myself that today and tomorrow and Saturday and every day I am able, for the remainder of my life, to speak my truth. Having grown up a black person I have often times held my tongue when I wanted to say what was in my heart for fear of offending the majority population. However, the difference between where we are now and Lincoln’s time is the majority population is no longer the majority. This country has changed dramatically. The Civil War and the necessity for Lincoln’s address in Gettysburg was in response to a changing America, even then. Continue reading “Sticking to His Plan: An Interview with Dedication Day Keynote Speaker LeVar Burton”
Not only did the armies leave something of a state of chaos behind them after the battle of Gettysburg; they also left their dead buried poorly almost everywhere. Within days, the combination of rain and pigs rooting around the battlefield had exposed multiple skeletons and partially-decomposed bodies. The smell was horrendous, and residents and visitors alike were shocked by the state of the burials.
Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin was among these visitors. After seeing the state of affairs during his tour of the battlefield on July 10th, Curtin appointed local attorney David Wills to act as his “agent” in affairs related to Pennsylvania’s dead. As agent, Wills did everything from helping families locate loved ones’ bodies to disinterring and sending those remains home. This process was made more complicated by the fact that those grave markers that existed were only partially legible, if at all.
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.
In anticipation of Remembrance Day and Dedication Day this week, we have asked our Fellows why and how they commemorate the Civil War. Read Megan’s post below, then check back later in the week for more posts on commemoration and remembrance.
In my last post, I appealed to the public to make good on the tragedies of Gettysburg in the same broad vein as President Clinton’s appeal at the 20th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica—to make the tragedy a “sacred trust” towards a better future. Needless to say, the material of the last piece stuck with me powerfully. In my musings I realized that I had, in my own experiences, stood witness to some small but remarkable efforts by visitors at Gettysburg to take something constructive and enduring from this tragedy.
Living in Gettysburg, I’ve learned that the town is many things to many people. It’s the place where the Civil War most permeates the public imagination, most touches the lives of everyday Americans. It’s a tourist trap. It’s our greatest killing ground. But above all, it’s a place where seekers from all segments of society come to understand—just what have we inherited from these men, and where do we take it from here? Once visitors step onto the field and learn the stories of what happened here—once they see the graves, the white stones and the sunken hollows of burial pits strewn across the field—many cannot help but start their search by trying to understand these men: their sorrow, their intentions, the sum total of their lives and the consequence of their actions. Continue reading “Some Small Tribute: How Modern Americans Find Meaning in the National Cemetery”
UPDATE: The Dedication Day ceremony has been moved to the College Union Building at Gettysburg College due to inclement weather.
Click the play button below in order to listen to Jeff’s special report on this week’s Civil War commemorations here in Gettysburg. You can also scroll down to read through the transcript if you’d prefer. This report will be airing on WZBT throughout this week. Thanks to WZBT 91.1 FM for their help in producing this piece.