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.
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.
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.
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.
The war did not end with the Battle of Gettysburg, of course, and Gettysburg and Pennsylvania College were still impacted after the battle and the end of the war. In November 1863, David Wills, an 1851 graduate of Pennsylvania College, invited President Lincoln to give an address dedicating a National Cemetery to those who had died at Gettysburg giving their “last full measure of devotion.” Dr. William E. Barton in Lincoln at Gettysburg described November 18, 1863 as “Gettysburg’s greatest night . . . John Hay and other gay spirits made a festive night of it. They had an oyster supper at the college, other re-freshments elsewhere, and went abroad singing John Brown’s Body and other up-to-date music.” It is known that some of the students followed a procession up to the National Cemetery for President Lincoln’s dedication and his famous Gettysburg Address the next day. One lucky college student who witnessed the Address was Dr. P. M. Bikle, class of 1866. He claims that the college students were “tail-enders” ordered to follow at the end of the procession, but that they were pleasantly surprised when they were ordered to march to the front of the crowd and “halt directly in front of the large platform built for the speakers and other dignitaries.” He provides an accurate statement of the reaction to Lincoln’s Address: “Mr. Lincoln’s speech was simple, appropriate, and right to the point, but I don’t think there was anything remarkable about it.” Many will of course disagree with Dr. Bikle’s statements now because the Gettysburg Address further embedded the name ‘Gettysburg’ into history. Thus, a tradition was begun in which all Gettysburg College students now walk to the National Cemetery during orientation week to hear the Gettysburg Address read.
The next August, Gettysburg would once more be disturbed when Chambersburg was burned just 25 miles down the road. Many students left, but Commencement still occurred on August 11, 1864 with only two of the remaining twelve students in the senior class present. All twelve did receive their diplomas, however. Statistics show that 27 undergraduates and 27 former students of the college served during the Civil War, but this did not include the 54 who joined Company A of the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia. Robert Fortenbaugh recorded the total number of former students and current students who served in the war as 950 men, both graduated and matriculated at the College. A total of 116 graduates saw service with 11 killed, six for the Union and five for the Confederacy. Three of them died at Gettysburg. Pennsylvania College was majorly impacted by low enrollment following the battle. By the Fall term of 1864 only 61 non-preparatory students enrolled compared to the average immediately before the war of about 92. Continue reading “The Legacy of Battle: Pennsylvania College in the Post-Civil War Era”
Though my own musings have led me to doubt the traditional interpretation of the Battle of Gettysburg’s military importance, I still hold Gettysburg to be the greatest battle of the American Civil War, without question worthy and deserving of continued study. In order to reconcile these two points of view I pondered further, attempting to unearth other, less-thought-of reasons for the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg to the course of the American Civil War.
Again my thoughts turned to the summer I spent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. As one of my duty stations that summer had been Spotsylvania Court House, the second battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, I had gained much experience explaining the concepts of this crucial campaign. The most famous aspect of Grant’s series of south-east movements in the spring and summer of 1864 is, of course, his unswerving determination to keep moving towards Richmond, no matter the cost. Grant’s fearless use of the North’s superior manpower and industrial capacity to defeat the waning strength of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has become legendary in American history. Yet mention of this war of attrition in the American Civil War only truly begins to rear its head in the context of ending the war with the opening of the Overland Campaign. Though Grant and his generals may have been the first to integrate attrition into their strategies, the attrition of Southern armies began almost as soon as the war started. Though victorious at nearly every battle, Robert E. Lee continually lost a higher percentage of his men than did his opponents, and it is this idea of Confederate losses that brings me back to Gettysburg. It is estimated that, out of a total of approximately 70,000 effective soldiers at the start of the campaign, Lee’s army suffered a total of around 23,000 casualties, fully 33% of its force. Among those casualties lurks a second, even more devastating fact. This same percentage of losses was reflected in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps, with at least a third of them becoming casualties over the course of those three days in July, 1863. In an army which has, rightly or wrongly, time and again been lauded for its superior leadership, the loss of so much of that leadership can only have been devastating to the continued performance of the army. In light of these figures, could it not be better to think of Gettysburg as one of the greatest disasters for Southern arms not because of the defeat itself, but due to the cost of any battle so bloody, be it a victory or a defeat?
There is nothing quite like residing in the town of Gettysburg during the years leading up to the sesquicentennial of the great battle fought here in 1863. As a devoted student of that great internecine conflict known as the American Civil War, I had applied to Gettysburg College in 2011 with the full knowledge of what was to come only two short years in the future, and could not have been more excited for it.