At Gettysburg on the anniversary of Lincoln's address, history shows its modern relevance

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GETTYSBURG -- The message today on one of the nation's most famous battlefields: Abraham Lincoln’s call to action 150 years ago is as relevant in 2013 as it was in 1863.

Bryce Stenzel said he and two friends came from New Ulm, Minn., to Adams County to be part of the commemoration today of Lincoln’s famous speech at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. About 3,500 casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg – hundreds of them unidentified – are among the 6,000 people buried there.

In his two-minute speech on Nov. 19, 1863, Lincoln reminded his listeners that they owed a duty to the soldiers who died there to assure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” would endure.

“You have to do more than just lay down some bouquets of flowers,” Mr. Stenzel said. “You have to be ready to fight for national principles.”

Foremost among them is the idea, as Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, that “all men are created equal,” he said. That promise was made in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Stenzel and his friends, Bill Harris and John Fritsche, were dressed in the uniforms of the Minnesota Home Guard, who fought Native-Americans from the Dakota tribe during a frontier war in 1862.

They were among the thousands of people who crowded into the National Cemetery today under mostly sunny skies. Many were re-enactors wearing uniforms of Civil War-era military units or civilian clothing from that era.

“There is so much history here, and so many men gave their lives here,” Drew Grivna, of Beaver, said.

Mr. Grivna is the former president of Achieva, a Pittsburgh-based provider of social services to people with disabilities. He and his hometown buddy Bill Morrow walked through the cemetery on Monday evening, paying their respects to the soldiers buried there. He described Lincoln’s address as “a simple speech, delivered from the heart.”

“He didn’t talk about punishing enemies or about himself,” Mr. Grivna said. “I hope that we and our kids and all students understand what he was trying to say.”

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson shared the role of keynote speakers this morning on the anniversary of Lincoln’s speech.

Ms. Jewell is the 51st Interior Secretary. Her duties include administration of the National Park Service. Mr. McPherson is a professor emeritus of United States history at Princeton University. His book, “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

Neither Ms. Jewell nor Mr. McPherson came close to making a two-hour speech like the one Edward Everett delivered at the cemetery dedication in 1863. Lincoln followed Everett.

Mr. Jewell pledged to keep her remarks to no more than the 272 words Lincoln used in 1863. The United States is still on a journey to assure that all men and women are treated equally, she said.

Mr. McPherson said that without Lincoln we were likely to have ended up with two or more nations in a "Disunited States." He closed with remarks from a 17-year-old immigrant girl from India. She said if the United States were not still in existence she would not have had the opportunity to excel.

The commemorative event, held at the cemetery, was sponsored by Gettysburg National Military Park, the Gettysburg Foundation, the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania and Gettysburg College.

It was followed by a military salute to U.S. Colored Troops at the grave of Charles H. Parker. An African-American soldier, he was buried on the western side of the cemetery.

Commemorative activities will continue this weekend with the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies on Saturday. Traditional events will include a memorial service at 11 a.m. on the battlefield at Zeigler’s Grove. It will be followed by a downtown parade starting at 1 p.m. and an illumination at the cemetery from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Almost 3,500 candles will be placed on Civil War soldiers’ graves that evening.

This morning’s event featured music by “President Lincoln’s Own Band.” The re-enactor musicians in the group dress in the uniforms of the Civil War-era Marine Corps band members and play authentic 19th century instruments. They performed in both Steven Spielberg’s movie, “Lincoln,” and in the National Geographic TV film “Killing Lincoln.”

On Monday night they also played for the arrival of President Lincoln, portrayed by presenter Robert Costello, at the Gettysburg Train Station.

Another of the many Lincoln presenters in town for the commemoration, James Getty, delivered Lincoln’s speech at this morning’s commemoration ceremony.

The program also included officials from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administering the Oath of Allegiance to sixteen new citizens.

Len Barcousky: or 724-772-0184.

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