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Following the footsteps of Lincoln

Memorial Day Ceremony with President Lincoln. (Credit: Gettysburg CVB, Thompson Photography)

There is quite a difference between „celebrating“ and „commemorating“. Many places in the U.S. right now make their way in between those terms as they show their role during the American Civil War  a 150 years ago. Visiting them and experiencing the commemorating events foreign visitors may learn a lot about, how Americans treat their history and how conscious they are about it. As most Europeans have heard about reenactments on the battlefields, it is worth a look to the many other ways to bring past times to present. During the next months I will point the way to some of those places by using material and media information I gathered during Pow Wow 2012 in Los Angeles.

It was less than five months after the Civil War came north and devastated the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. After three long days of fighting, more than 22,000 dead and wounded soldiers lay out on the farm fields around town. The town’s 2,400 residents were left to pick up the pieces. It took many months, and the town of Gettysburg was never the same. When it came time to dedicate a National Cemetery where Union soldiers were buried, a tall, lanky president accepted an invitation to say „a few appropriate remarks,“ on Nov. 19, 1863. Abraham Lincoln arrived by train, and within a day was back on the train heading back to the White House in Washington, D.C. But what he did in those 25 hours secured his legacy as one of America’s most beloved presidents, and that legacy can be relived in Gettysburg 148 years later.

„Gettysburg has seen its share of great men, but one stands above all others,“ said Joanne Lewis, a Gettysburg historian and Licensed Battlefield Guide. „When Abraham Lincoln walked the streets of Gettysburg, he brought hope and caring. Those who witnessed his brief visit never forgot it, and the words he spoke here became some of the most revered words of all time.“ There are numerous ways to learn about and experience both Lincoln and his famous speech in Gettysburg. The town has preserved and protected the legacy that Lincoln created for Gettysburg, himself and for America. „In Gettysburg, you can walk in Lincoln’s footsteps and experience those places where Lincoln visited during his short stay,“ Lewis said. „From the Train Station where he arrived, to the Wills House where he stayed and the Soldiers‘ National Cemetery and Presbyterian Church, you can retrace Lincoln’s monumental visit in November 1863.“

Arguably, the Gettysburg Address would not have occurred had it not been for David Wills, a young attorney who developed the plans for the National Cemetery and sent the invitation to Lincoln. The President stayed overnight in the second floor bedroom and put the finishing touches on his speech that evening. The house is now owned by the National Park Service as a museum dedicated to both Lincoln’s visit and the efforts of Wills in the aftermath of the battle.

Called „the most true-to-life“ depiction of Lincoln ever created, this statue is one of Gettysburg’s most popular attractions. The statue depicts the 16th president showing a visitor the David Wills house room in which he finished the Gettysburg Address. The sculptor – J. Seward Johnson Jr. – used casts of Lincoln’s face and hands, as well as designs from Lincoln’s suit coat.

Expert historians help visitors follow Lincoln’s footsteps on guided historic walking tours throughout the town of Gettysburg. These guides will share stories of how the townspeople reacted to the President’s arrival and the mood that day as Lincoln rode down Baltimore Street to the cemetery to make his remarks. These tours include the same stops that the President made during his 25-hour visit to Gettysburg. Alternatively you may take a walk with Abraham Lincoln on aself-guided walking tour of Downtown Gettysburg and stop at some lesser-known Lincoln sites such as the Robert Harper House, where the President visited with his Secretary of State, William H. Seward, the night of Nov. 18th as he finished the Gettysburg Address.

Every year on Nov. 19, Gettysburg honors its beloved president with Dedication Day, to mark the anniversary of the dedication of the National Cemetery. The day includes a Wreath-laying ceremony, Keynote speaker and the reciting of the Gettysburg Address, along with a Graveside Salute to the U.S. Colored Troops. In November 2013, Gettysburg will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau anticipates a strong interest in Lincoln from people around the world, especially during the next five years as the nation marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the American Civil War. „Lincoln secured his legacy right here in Gettysburg,“ said Norris Flowers, President of the Gettysburg CVB. „More and more people from around the world visit Gettysburg to learn more about the 16th president and the address he delivered here.

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