Taking Grandchildren to Gettysburg
A visit to Gettysburg tugs on your heart, bewilders the mind and saddens the soul. Yet, it brings forth honor and hope and perhaps, even a sense of peace. At least it did for me.
I took my two oldest grandchildren, ages 9 and 11, the day after we visited Chocolate World in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Nine-year-old Kyra put it astutely, “Mimi, these two places are polar opposites.” Yes, they are. Hershey was delicious fun, play time and laughter. Gettysburg was a solemn history lesson.
What does the chasing of history achieve? Does it matter where events took place and whether or not we can understand them?
Our first stop was the Gettysburg Military Park Headquarters and Visitors Center where we watched a movie narrated by Morgan Freeman. The film explained the overwhelming loss of life that happened in this small town 150 years ago, some 57,225 causalities (dead, wounded, captured or missing) from both sides during the three-day campaign. The movie also described how the Union victory helped end the Civil War and bring forth the Emancipation Proclamation.
After the film, we climbed stairs to view the historic and restored Cyclorama, the largest painting in the US. French artist Paul Philippoteaux and his team painted the 377 foot long (now 359) by 42 feet high work in 1883, 30 years after the battle. The 360-degree cylindrical painting depicts Pickett’s Charge, the climactic Confederate attack on the Union forces during the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.
This type of presentation, popular at the turn-of- the-century, was intended to immerse viewers in the scene with the addition of foreground models and life-sized replicas to enhance the illusion. The grandkids and I were fascinated by the sound and light show effects on articles, like canon, and how they created a realistic intensity to the work of art. (Tip: we visited near the end of the day and practically had the space to ourselves.)
But, it was our visit to the David Wills House the next morning that brought the story of Gettysburg together. The old brick home in the center of town was filled with wounded and dying soldiers after the battle. Leading citizens met there to make plans for proper burials. Wills, an attorney, acquired land for the National Cemetery and sent President Lincoln an invitation by telegram. This led to his coming to Gettysburg and giving the most famous speech in American history.
Lincoln spent the night before the dedication in the Wills House revising his intended remarks. His short speech the next day surprised many, but his words – known as the Gettysburg Address – are long remembered.
While touring the upstairs of the Wills House, including the bedroom as it was during Lincoln’s stay, we saw another film. This one clearly revealed how the freedoms won by the Emancipation Proclamation were not truly fulfilled. The production showed the rise of the Klux Klux Klan and how segregation became a way of life in the South.
The presentation also included footage of Martin Luther King giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which had days before celebrated a 50th anniversary and was, therefore, familiar in my grandchildren’s minds. The movie ends with LBJ signing the Civil Rights Bill and more current American scenes.
Cleary, even now, not all men are treated equally; discrimination still occurs and struggles continue. But, I left the Wills House with a feeling of deeper compassion and hopeful expectation. I think my grandchildren did, too. They are our future and taking them to a place like this is worthwhile. History has meaning, when we try to understand, but that’s not to say fun is frivolous. On the contrary, both are necessary.
Every November 19th, Gettysburg commemorates the cemetery dedication and the delivery of the Gettysburg Address on Dedication Day. This year will mark the 150th commemoration.
Dedication Day will be held at Soldiers’ National Cemetery and will include a Wreath Laying Ceremony at 10 a.m., followed by a formal ceremony. Speaking will be Pulitzer Prize-winning author and noted American Civil War historian James McPherson. The formal ceremony will feature candidates taking the United States Oath of Citizenship and a $5,000 scholarship will be awarded to a Pennsylvania student as part of the “In Lincoln’s Footsteps” speech competition. Music will be provided by the U.S. Marine Corps Band and nationally renowned Lincoln portrayer James Getty will deliver a recitation of the Gettysburg Address.
Coinciding with Dedication Day and the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address is Remembrance Day, to be held this year on Saturday, Nov. 23. Gettysburg residents and visitors annually commemorate the sacrifices made during and after the battle.
Remembrance Day will begin with a Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Service at the Woolson Monument in Zeigler’s Grove in the Gettysburg National Military Park at 11 a.m. The service will be followed by the 57th Annual Remembrance Day Parade, which will step off downtown at 1 p.m. in remembrance of the soldiers who served during the Civil War.
The 11th Annual Remembrance Illumination will take place on Nov. 23 at Soldiers’ National Cemetery from 5:30-9:30 p.m. Luminary candles will be lit on the graves of each of the Civil War soldiers to commemorate the sacrifices made at Gettysburg.
For more information on Dedication Day and Remembrance Day events, visit www.gettysburgcivilwar150.com.