This article originally appeared in the pages of the Gettysburg Times, December of 2023. It was penned by Dr. Ashley Whitehead Luskey of the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, in the hopes of sharing the work the Fellowship does.
“These people gave us a chance…so that we can do better than we have before.” These poignant words, uttered amidst the American graves at Normandy by former president, General Dwight D. Eisenhower on the 20th anniversary of D-Day, were again recited by the President’s granddaughter, famed policy analyst and author, Susan Eisenhower on the stage of Gettysburg’s Majestic Theater before a crowd of 800 this past November 19th. The date marked the 160th anniversary of both Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” and the dedication of Soldiers National Cemetery, and began with the procession of the leading program participants by horse-drawn carriage from Gettysburg National Cemetery through town to the Majestic. Ms. Eisenhower’s keynote reflection provided a powerful and resonant connection between the seminal centennial commemoration of Dedication Day, in 1963, at which her grandfather had also delivered the keynote speech, and the 2023 program. This year’s program featured not only the traditional elements of the yearly Dedication Day event, such as the recitation of the Gettysburg Address, wonderfully delivered by actor, Graham Sibley, but also incorporated numerous elements from the centennial event of 60 years previous, which helped the audience contemplate both the continued and evolving legacies of Lincoln’s eloquent words since November of 1863.
A deep admirer of Lincoln’s leadership and personal character, General Eisenhower clearly appreciated the linkages between the sacrifice of Union soldiers during the Civil War for, what Lincoln eulogized, the preservation of democratic government and individual freedom, and the sacrifice of U.S. troops on D-Day in the name of global democracy. No doubt, as he gazed out from the rostrum in Soldiers National Cemetery on November 19, 1963 at the 3,500 graves of Union dead, the image of the graves at Normandy superimposed themselves upon the small, whitewashed stones. Susan Eisenhower’s call for all citizens to re-seek common ground, re-embrace the human dignity of all people, and revive the art of civil debate with which to try to iron out the myriad conflicts and disputes dividing our nation in the present hearkened back to the call of her grandfather—to do better than we have before, in the name of all who have died on the battlefield to give our nation another chance.
Lincoln himself famously referred to America as the “last best hope for democracy on earth”—a last, best hope for which the 3,500 Union soldiers buried in our cemetery gave their lives---another chance for democracy at home, and as a guiding beacon for governments abroad. This past Dedication Day saw that beacon of democracy celebrated in the naturalization of 16 citizen candidates representing 8 foreign countries--- a perennial highlight of the ceremony and an emotional moment for candidates and the audience alike.
However, one of the most memorable and perhaps defining moments of the entire ceremony was delivered by Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano, J’Nai Bridges, who performed the two hymns sung by famed contralto, Marian Anderson at the 1963 Dedication Day event. Ms. Bridges’s breathtaking renditions of “Lead Kindly, Light” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” brought the audience to their feet. Like Anderson’s, Ms. Bridges’s sublime performance elevated the program with a powerful inspiration to, indeed, do better than we have done before, to ensure that the fallen of Gettysburg—and their fallen successors since—shall never have died in vain, and to make the most and best of the second chance they selflessly gave us here at Gettysburg.
Dr. Ashley Whitehead Luskey is the Assistant Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College and a member of the Lincoln Fellowship’s Board of Directors.
Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania is a 501(c)3 OrganizationP. O. Box 3372, Gettysburg, PA 17325Email: email@example.com