Lincoln's words echo at Gettysburg 150 years later
GETTYSBURG — Abraham Lincoln was wrong.
The world remembers what he said here.
More than 5,000 people packed the lawn between the dais and the Civil War burial ground on Tuesday to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a relatively brief speech that Lincoln predicted the world would “little note nor long remember.”
The first to arrive lined up in near-freezing temperatures before dawn. By the time the program started at 10 a.m., the wind gusting on Cemetery Hill made the temperature feel colder than the 40 degrees measured by weather services.
“We do this because we must remember the price we paid to become the country that we are today,” said Robert Kirby, superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park.
Dave Baudet took the second place in line when he arrived about 6 a.m.
“It's optimistic,” Baudet, 61, of Oak Park Heights, Minn., said of Lincoln's speech, which was read by re-enactor James Getty during the ceremony. “It was therapeutic and, in an odd sense, it was healing. ... We reflect on those who gave their ‘last measure of devotion' for an idea.”
The day's speakers — who included Gov. Tom Corbett, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Sens. Bob Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey, and the 16-year-old winner of an essay contest — had the difficult task of commemorating Lincoln's words with their own.
“It's a humbling experience,” said Toomey, R-Lehigh County, who called the address “the greatest American speech ... given by the indispensable American.”
Lincoln's address, delivered at the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery in 1863, the country's first national cemetery, was scheduled almost as an afterthought to the keynote delivered by Harvard President Edward Everett.
“Two speeches were given on this spot,” Corbett said. “The first contained more than 13,000 words and lasted two hours. The second contained 272 words and has lasted 150 years.”
The commemoration included a naturalization ceremony for 16 immigrants who swore an oath of allegiance given by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The number was chosen in honor of Lincoln, the 16th president.
“May America bring you all that you expect from it, and may you give it all that it expects from you,” Scalia told them. After he administered the oath of allegiance, the crowd gave its newest fellow citizens a standing ovation.
The ceremony allowed Joseph Jeyaraj to try out a new phrase: “Our president, Abraham Lincoln.”
A native of southern India, Jeyaraj's American journey began in the land of Lincoln when he moved to the United States about 20 years ago to study English at the University of Illinois. Jeyaraj, now of State College, said he found inspiration in the life story of the former president, who “came from nothing.”
“Sometimes, history just stands up in your face,” said Jeyaraj, who declined to give his age.
Several of the new citizens said they'd been told President
Obama would attend the ceremony. Instead, a National Park Ranger read a brief speech from the president and a message he recorded for the 16 new citizens was played.
Obama's decision not to appear “made him look bad,” said Mike Wood, 39, of Chesterfield, Mich. He should have come “just to show his respect,” said Wood, a re-enactor with the 7th Michigan Cavalry and author of the nonfiction Civil War book “Tuebor.”
“If you get apples and oranges thrown at you, who cares? As long as you're here,” Wood said.
Lincoln's son was ill when the president traveled to Gettysburg by train 150 years ago, he said.
The anniversary shares a date with another seminal American moment: the signing of the Treaty of Paris 230 years ago, ending the Revolutionary War, McPherson said. Several historians use Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to argue the Civil War was a second — or, perhaps, continuation — of that revolution.
“When (Lincoln) became president, four million African-Americans were slaves,” McPherson said. By the time John Wilkes Booth shot him 18 months after the speech, “They and their posterity were to become forever free.”
It's the only speech whose anniversary the country is likely to commemorate, said John Heiser, a historian with the National Park Service.
“It's one of the most powerful speeches in history,” Heiser said, and not just American history.
When foreign visitors come to Gettysburg, most tour the battlefield. But Heiser said “what they really want to know is, ‘Where did Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address?' ”
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.