GETTYSBURG — It’s not about the politics, but I am extremely disappointed that the president of the United States has decided not to attend the ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg.
Nov. 19 is more than a date on a calendar of dusty historic events. On that date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln spoke some of the most famous words in American history.
The Gettysburg Address endures, as a tribute to all who died for equality and a united nation and doubles as a tribute to a man with little formal education whose words inspire us.
Declining a formal invitation, Obama is sending Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in his place, the Gettysburg National Military Park said, last week. Jewell will share the keynote speaker role with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson.
“I thought he would probably come. He identifies with Lincoln and knows a great deal about him,” McPherson said. “It might have been an opportunity for him to say something important.”
Ironically, Obama referenced the battle during his first inaugural address, talking about those who “fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.”
More than 3,500 Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg are buried there. It is a peaceful, heartbreaking place.
The original plan was to have the Union dead buried randomly, as they were reinterred in the new cemetery, according to Tony DeLacy, a licensed Gettysburg battlefield guide.
Some officials raised concerns about this plan and, as a result, the final design gave each state its own separate plot. Although not intended or foreseen, the plan had an unfortunate flaw.
As soldiers were reburied, those who could be identified by name but not by state would sadly be interred in the sterile “unknown section” of the cemetery.
The Union dead were reburied in wood coffins placed in long, semicircular 3-foot-deep trenches. Of the 3,512 burials, 979 were completely unknown and 1,664 were partially unknown.
Such sacrifice is worthy of the attention of the nation’s commander in chief, no matter who he or she may be. It’s not about the politics.
Six presidents have spoken from the rostrum or sat upon it, during memorial services, including Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It was FDR who spoke at the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial on the northern edge of the battlefield on the 75th anniversary of the conflict on July 3, 1938, calling it “an enduring light to guide us in unity and fellowship.”
DeLacy had similar feelings, when walking the grounds of the cemetery.
“Years peel away, and we feel as one with the soldiers, as if they were family. They are family,” he wrote.
It’s not about the politics.
The Hanover, Pa., Evening Sun last week offered the following:
“Obama began his presidential campaign in Springfield, Ill., traced Lincoln’s 1861 train route in coming to Washington and even took the oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible.”
It’s not about the politics.
Had Obama chosen to attend the observance, later this month, he could have made his way to New York State Section O, Row B, Position 14. There lie the remains of Amos Humiston of the 154th Volunteer Infantry.
Humiston’s body was discovered with no identification, only a photograph of three small children clutched in his hand.
The story made headlines, in many Northern newspapers. Only when his widow saw the published photograph did she learn that her husband was dead and that their three children were orphans. Proceeds from sales of the photo allowed a children’s home to be established in Gettysburg, after the war.
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” Lincoln said. Have we forgotten?
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.