Gettysburg Address remembered at ceremony

November 19, 2013

On a blustery Tuesday marking the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, thousands gathered at the national cemetery to remember President Abraham Lincoln’s call for “a new birth of freedom.”

The U.S. Marine Band played some of the same songs played when it accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg for the dedication of the cemetery that holds many of the Union soldiers killed in the decisive Civil War battle four months earlier. A Lincoln impersonator, hatless and wearing white gloves, recited the address Tuesday with a Kentucky twang.

But the emotional highlight came when 16 people, some with flags in their lapels, stood at a railing in the front row before the stage and raised their right hands to take the oath of citizenship from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

The United States, Scalia told the gathering, is “a nation of immigrants” who came seeking opportunity and freedom.

“That freedom is not free, as the dead who rest here can attest,” Scalia said.

On the 150th anniversary of the delivery of "The Gettysburg Address," documentary filmmaker Ken Burns explores the lasting impression made from Abraham Lincoln's famous speech in his latest film, "The Address." To do this, he went to Gettysburg, Pa. to get people reading the remarks. (The Washington Post)

Lisa Castro, a 37-year-old native of Congo, said she was thrilled to take the oath at the Gettysburg anniversary.

“This feeling of having the freedom and ability to accomplish anything we can in our lives, it’s very exciting,” said Castro, whose 1-year-old daughter, Abigail, slept in a bassinet bundled against the cold as her mother took the oath.

Speakers at the 90-minute ceremony included Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R), members of Congress and Civil War historian James McPherson.

Most of those taking the stage acknowledged that they could not meet the brief eloquence Lincoln reached in the address and instead quoted him at length.

Jewell, who kept her talk to 272 words, approximately the length of the original address, said Lincoln’s words “tell us what it means to be American. They call us to unfinished work, not just to win a war, but to build a more perfect nation.”

The battle, fought from July 1 to 3 in 1863, left nearly 51,000 soldiers wounded, dead, missing or captured and ended with a Union victory that forced Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to retreat to Virginia. Though the war would continue for nearly two more years, Gettysburg was “the hinge of fate on which turned the destiny of that nation and its new birth of freedom,” McPherson said in his keynote address.

Lincoln’s remarks — “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” — infused the soldiers’ sacrifice with a meaning that has echoed through the generations.

“It’s so familiar that we sometimes say or hear it without thinking of its meaning,” McPherson said.

Filmmaker Ken Burns, who came to Gettysburg to promote his new initiative, Learn the Address, which encourages Americans to read and recite the speech, ran into the new citizens at the National Park Service visitors center and said he was moved by their interest and knowledge of Gettysburg.

“I told a woman from the Ivory Coast that she probably knew more than 90 percent of Americans,” Burns said in an interview.

Among those who have submitted videos of themselves reciting the Gettysburg Address are President Obama and former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Others include comedians Stephen Colbert and David Letterman.

“These two minutes of presidential poetry have had a lasting effect,” Burns said.

Burns, well-known for his documentary “The Civil War” and others, has made a film called “The Address,” to be released in the spring, about a small Vermont school where students with learning disabilities each year memorize and recite the speech.

It’s an effort Burns wishes more Americans would make.

“I think the average American is distracted by a media culture that is all about now,” he said.

When Lincoln delivered his address on Nov. 19, 1863, a morning drizzle had given away to a sunny and unseasonably warm afternoon, according to Martin Johnson, a historian at Miami University in Ohio. The weather Tuesday was considerably chillier, but the sun appeared periodically.

The large crowd, which filled the seating area and spilled onto a large lawn beyond, was bundled in overcoats and knit caps. Local fifth-graders who had memorized the speech in school were wrapped in down jackets.

Some people were dressed in period clothing, including women in bonnets and long skirts and men wearing Union army uniforms. More than one made a passable Lincoln, including the official reenactor, James Getty, who has delivered the address on the dedication anniversary for more than three decades.

To the side of the audience and the stage, in a great semicircle, lay the graves of more than 3,500 Union soldiers.

Scalia, in his flowing black robe, appeared to relish his ceremonial role. The justice, who is the son of an immigrant from Sicily, marveled at the opportunity the United States provides.

“My grandmother expected me to be president,” he said. “I didn’t quite make that — but it was possible.”

Addressing the naturalized citizens, who came from 13 nations, Scalia expressed the wish that “America give you all that you expect, and that you give it all that it expects of you.”

At the ceremony’s conclusion, he walked down in front of the stage and shook the hand of each new American.

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