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Gettysburg 150: A New Birth of Freedom

Written by Nell McCormack Abom | Jul 1, 2013 12:42 PM
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As the sun set over the battlefields of Gettysburg on Sunday night, a large crowd gathered to take part in a National Park Service-sponsored ceremony near the site of Gen. George Meade's headquarters.

Meade had commanded the Army of the Potomac during three days of horrific fighting that led to victory for the Union forces at Gettysburg and doomed the Confederacy to eventual defeat. National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis made clear that what is happening all this week in Gettysburg “is not a celebration, but a commemoration” of bravery, sacrifice and tremendous human loss. He reminded us that the “cataclysmic confrontation” on these fields 150 years ago gave rise to the freedoms we enjoy today.

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Carol Etherton of Chicago, Illinois visits Gettysburg.

The ceremony, “Gettysburg 150: A New Birth of Freedom,” took place under threatening skies. But Mother Nature held off. Rifle cracks and cannon booms in a multimedia video presentation that was projected on large screens, and a final 21-gun salute, provided the only thunderclaps. As the video played behind them, actors on stage portrayed soldiers, townspeople and military leaders and spoke of the horrors of the battle that raged for those three days here in the summer of 1863. The United States Military Band provided magnificent live accompaniment to the production.

Historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin gave the keynote address. She recounted her experiences working as a young staffer for President Lyndon Johnson as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took shape. And she recalled Bobby Kennedy’s famous “Ripple of Hope” speech. “As we gather together to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg,” she said, “we can look upon these brave knowing that each of these soldiers who rests here tonight set forth their own ripples of hope and that those ripples built a mighty current that swept the scourge of slavery from our land, giving our beloved country, as Abraham Lincoln so magnificently promised, a new birth of freedom.”

As I wandered through the battlefield, I came across Carol Etherton.

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Blair Berger and his son Blake at Gettysburg.

She emigrated from Guatemala to Chicago 45 years ago and became a United States citizen. “I’m on a pilgrimage to Gettysburg,” Etherton enthused. She clearly was enthralled with the history of the Civil War and the lessons it continues to teach us. “I am immersed totally. I will be here for all the ceremonies and reenactments. It is humbling and astounding to contemplate and meditate on what happened here,” she told me.

Blair Berger brought his family to Gettysburg from the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, including his 9-year-old son Blake and a German exchange student.

He was explaining to them the troop movements across the fields when I stopped to ask him why he chose to spend this week on these hallowed grounds. “I’ve been here a number of times,” Berger explained. “It’s an important place. I’m a teacher and I wanted my family to be here to commemorate the 150th and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It’s about all the people. That’s what they were fighting for.”

Just up field of the Bergers, Steve Hawkins of Pittsburgh stood in his woolen Union blues as he described his regiment.

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Civil War re-enactor Steve Hawkins of Pittsburgh, PA.

“It was the 116th Pennsylvania which participated with the Irish brigade for a period. In Gettysburg, they were part of the 2nd Corps which was to the south down in the wheat field area on the second day.” Hawkins said he’s participated in reenactment events for 15 years and knew he had to be in Gettysburg for this anniversary. “It’s the only one that’s going to happen in my lifetime. I was 10 years old at the 100th and kind of remember it, but to be a participant and to be here on the battlefield for the 150th is something special and not to be missed.”

One of the most stirring moments of last night’s commemoration was the lighting of candles and the procession of the crowd to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery for a Memorial Luminaria.

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Candlelight procession to Memorial Luminaria at Soldiers' National Cemetery, Gettysburg.

All were somber, respectful and quiet as they made their way up Taneytown Road to the burial grounds.

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Tyrone Cornbower of Wellsville, PA is a Union army re-enactor at Gettysburg.

As I walked with Union re-enactor Tyrone Cornbower of Wellsville, PA, he told me the moment that individuals began lighting their candles was an emotional highpoint for him. “It was the passing of the flame from someone you didn’t know to someone else. It was just incredibly moving,” he said.

Indeed. The Memorial Luminaria was a simple, haunting, spiritual and perfect way to honor these heroes of American democracy and to thank them for illuminating and ensuring our path to freedom 150 years later.

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Comments: 2

  • Christine Flowers img 2013-07-01 15:12

    Having lived in Pennsylvania all of my life, I must admit that most of my history came from that "other" war, the first one. That's in part because I lived in and around Philadelphia, where the stones and the air carried the indelible imprint of the founders. Philadelphia was always a revolutionary city, to my mind. But a few years ago I became interested in the Civil War. I made visits to our Union League, checked out the birthplace of Philadelphian George Meade, started reading books like "Battle Cry of Freedom" and of course "The Killer Angels." But it was only when I visited Gettysburg this past year that I had some sense of just how important, how devastatingly divisive and ultimately redemptive that war was. Even more so than the revolution, what the confederacy called "The War of Northern Agression" forged us into a union. When I visited Richmond a few months ago, I got the sense that we were still somewhat divided and that "Union" is a relative term. But Gettysburg is a holy place, a sacred place, and for anyone who calls Pennsylvania home, it is the most precious place for remembrance, pride and the best kind of patriotism. Thanks for posting this, Nell.

    • Nell McCormack Abom img 2013-07-01 16:09

      Thank you, Christine, for reminding all of us how pivotal Pennsylvania and Pennsylvanians have been to the founding and flourishing of this great nation.

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