Spielberg at Gettysburg

Each November 19 the town of Gettysburg commemorates the anniversary of the short speech that Abraham Lincoln made on that date in 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery. At this year’s commemoration the keynote speaker was director Steven Spielberg, whose film Lincoln had just opened. I drove down to attend the ceremony with my wife, Beth Ann, and Kyle Weaver, my editor at Stackpole Books.

The 2012 Dedication Day program.

It was a cool, gray November morning when we reached Gettysburg, where we discovered we were not the only people who decided to show up today. A sizeable crowd was gathering around the rostrum in the National Cemetery, including a good number of school students. We headed down to the Soldiers National Monument, which is closer to the actual spot where Lincoln spoke, because the day’s events would begin there with a wreath-laying ceremony.

As people waited around the monument, the Federal City Brass Band performed some spirited Civil War-era tunes and patriotic airs. I was just happy I did not have to play a brass instrument on such a cold morning. Then a couple of black SUV’s rolled up with the guests of honor. I hurried over to get some photographs of director Spielberg and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (whose book Team of Rivals provided the basis for much of the movie). They emerged from their car and were introduced to various people as I went into full paparazzi mode.

I can have mixed feelings about Spielberg. Sometimes he ladles on the sentimentality and he has an unfortunate weakness for the group hug. Yet there’s no denying that he is a master filmmaker and his movies have become an inextricable part of the public imagination over the past several decades. The man has an undeniable touch behind the camera and has compiled a pretty amazing body of work. His movies include Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Last Ark, E.T., Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, just to name a few. And now Lincoln.

Director Steven Spielberg at Gettysburg for Dedication Day.

I had seen Lincoln the night before and came away impressed overall. There are times when John Williams’ score teeters on the edge of self-parody as it attempts to push emotional buttons, but there are no group hugs and the film often made me think, “Yes, it must have been something like that.” Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the role of Lincoln, with all his humanity and frailties. He does not play the president as a plaster saint but as a man comfortable with himself yet willing to do whatever it takes—including buying off reluctant legislators—to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and end slavery in the United States. It’s mostly a story of politics, not war. Ulysses S. Grant makes an appearance, but there’s no mention of George Gordon Meade.

No one mentioned Meade at the Gettysburg ceremony either. As I write in Searching for George Gordon Meade, “It’s safe to say that Lincoln’s speech is now more famous than the man who commanded the army that made the speech possible. ‘It is a commentary on the power of words that what Lincoln said at Gettysburg has eclipsed what Meade did there,” wrote a reviewer for The Dial magazine way back in 1913. ‘To be bowled over by an [sic] eulogy celebrating your own performance is a hard fate.’”

Indeed it is.

Chances are historians will little note nor long remember what Steven Spielberg said in his Gettysburg address but he delivered a thoughtful, heartfelt speech to a crowed estimated at 9,000 people (including, he noted, “a healthy percentage of the country’s entire population of Lincoln obsessives”). He admitted to feeling humbled to be speaking here. “More than any other name connected to the Civil War, except Lincoln’s, Gettysburg’s reverberates,” he said. “Even Americans who don’t know precisely what transpired on these fields know that all the glory and all the tragedy that we associate with the Civil War resides most palpably, most indelibly, here.” He talked about the importance of scholars and historians for preserving collective memory and the importance of memory itself, as well as the need to acknowledge death in order to truly embrace living. “As much as we need memory to live, we need an awareness of death to live,” he said. “Surely that’s what cemeteries like Gettysburg are for.” He talked about his desire as a filmmaker to waken Lincoln from his one and a half centuries, if only for the two and a half hours of a cinematic dream.

A bugler played “Taps” after the wreath-laying ceremony at the Soldiers National Monument.

After Spielberg finished, Jim Getty, who has been portraying Lincoln for years, stepped forward to deliver the short address that provided the basis for the whole ceremony, all 272 words of it. A soloist sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” followed by a naturalization ceremony in which citizens from 12 different countries became citizens of the United States. In a little touch that would not have been out of place in a Steven Spielberg movie, by the end of the ceremony the gray clouds had broken up enough to allow some faint rays of sunshine to peek through. All it lacked was the self-consciously stirring notes of a John Williams score.

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