GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- President Abraham Lincoln knew a lot about abolishing slavery, forging tough political compromises to hold the nation together through a bitter civil war and making a two-minute speech into an immortal address.
Movie director Steven Spielberg wasn't an expert on Lincoln when he went after the film rights to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography, but after making "Lincoln," a movie about the last months of the president's life, he said he has developed a huge respect for the 16th president.
Mr. Spielberg appeared at the Soldiers National Cemetery on Monday as part of the 149th anniversary of the dedication of the cemetery and Lincoln's famous remarks.
"I feel a huge debt of gratitude to President Lincoln," said Mr. Spielberg, whose movie about the bitter political fight to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed was released last week. It is based in part on "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," by Ms. Kearns Goodwin.
After immersing himself for months in study of the president, especially his final months in office when he pushed for the amendment abolishing slavery, "I am a newly minted Lincoln obsessive," Mr. Spielberg said.
Lincoln "has come to feel like one of my oldest and dearest friends. His ghost is still eloquent," he said.
"I wanted to bring Abe Lincoln back from his sleep of 11/2 centuries, if only for 21/2 hours," he said, referring to the length of the movie.
He joked that when he wants to talk to Lincoln, "I keep Daniel Day-Lewis' phone number on my speed dial," referring to the actor who plays the title role in the movie and bears an uncanny resemblance to the bearded president from Illinois.
"Abe Lincoln tried to grasp the meaning of existence," Mr. Spielberg said. "He knew the heroism, sacrifice and patriotism of the young men who died here. It's a great task for all of us to comprehend such triumphs and defeats.
"Nothing matters more than memory. Human beings hunger for history. It's hunger for justice that compelled these soldiers to fight" in the battle of Gettysburg.
But art can add to history, he said.
"Through art we can bring the dead back to life. It's fantasy, dreams, but dreams matter."
Mr. Spielberg, a three-time Oscar winner, said he was honored "to be asked to speak at such a hallowed place on the anniversary of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and commemorate this important moment in our nation's history."
He thanked his "fellow Lincoln obsessives," Ms. Kearns Goodwin and Tony Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote the screenplay.
The Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, in which about 51,000 Union and Confederate troops died or were wounded, is regarded as the turning point in the war.
"This is sacred ground, great events occurred here," said Ralph Siegel of Trenton, N.J., one of the 10,000 visitors Monday. "You can literally stand where Abe Lincoln gave his address. This is precious."
Gene and Donna Zeglen, who live near Johnstown, said they come to the commemoration of the Gettysburg Address every year. "There is something special here. There is a lot of history."
Organizers of the event also pointed to a Gettysburg lawyer named David Wills, who bought the land in August 1863 where the thousands of fallen Union soldiers are buried and who invited Mr. Lincoln to the dedication of the cemetery, asking him to make "a few appropriate remarks.''
Charles Kuhn, president of the Lincoln Fellowship, which has sponsored the annual Dedication Day since 1938, said that a famous orator of the time, Edward Everett, was the main speaker at the dedication.
"He spoke for two hours and no one remembers a thing that he said, but President Lincoln, who was only asked to speak as an afterthought, spoke for two minutes but no one will ever forget his Gettysburg Address."
Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg by train Nov. 18, 1863, at Mr. Wills' invitation and wrote some of the address the night before, while staying at Mr. Wills' house in the square in Gettysburg.
Before Mr. Spielberg's address, the ceremonies began with the laying of a wreath at the Soldiers National Monument, another memorial to the fallen troops. A local character actor who portrays Lincoln, James Getty, recited the Gettysburg Address. A naturalization ceremony for 16 new U.S. citizens was held by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
This day was officially named as Dedication Day in 1946 by a joint resolution of Congress, which urged that Lincoln's address "be read throughout the United States and its possessions, on our ships at sea and wherever the American flag flies."
Tom Barnes: firstname.lastname@example.org First Published November 20, 2012 5:00 AM