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Leaders Draw Different Messages From Battle Of Gettysburg


Our leaders have been commemorating Gettysburg ever since 1863 - most famously President Lincoln that November when he dedicated the cemetery there. Later, presidents and vice presidents have observed many anniversaries at Gettysburg. For the centennial in 1963, Lyndon Johnson, still the vice president, linked the Civil War to the civil rights movement.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: One hundred years ago, a slave was freed. One hundred years later, the negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.

SIEGEL: Other leaders have drawn other messages from and at Gettysburg. And joining us to talk about how the great battle has been framed over the years is historian Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. Professor Gallagher, welcome.

GARY GALLAGHER: Thanks for having me.

JOHNSON: After the Civil War, when do we first see a president marking the anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg?

GALLAGHER: The first important president to go was Woodrow Wilson, who went on the 50th anniversary in 1913.

SIEGEL: I've seen pictures of that anniversary and they are quite moving.

GALLAGHER: They are moving and there were many thousands of veterans at that anniversary because so many, a relatively large number, were still alive.

SIEGEL: And what was the theme of the 50th anniversary, at least as Wilson saw it?

GALLAGHER: The theme, as Wilson saw it, was reconciliation. He didn't draw a distinction between the respective causes. He didn't talk about one side being right, one side being wrong. He made no mention of emancipation or of African-Americans. His message was that the battle showcased the American virtues of gallantry held by the soldiers in both the Army in Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac and celebrated the fact that a united nation had come out of this war, for which the battle of Gettysburg was the centerpiece in his reading of it.

SIEGEL: Not coincidentally, Wilson was a Democrat and the Democrats were very strong in what was then the segregated South.

GALLAGHER: Absolutely right. And I think that would have played to his own view of the war as well. He wrote a book on Robert E. Lee. Many of his other writings suggest that, to a significant degree, Woodrow Wilson was onboard with the basic tenets of the lost cause interpretation of the war - the one put together by former Confederates.

SIEGEL: The next big anniversary was the 75th - 1938. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went to Gettysburg for the unveiling of a monument, the Eternal Light Peace Memorial.

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Veterans of the blue and the gray, I accept this monument in the spirit of brotherhood and peace.

SIEGEL: Professor Gallagher, again, a Democrat and again, a message of reconciliation.

GALLAGHER: Absolutely. In fact, when you read Wilson's speech alongside FDR's, it seems as if the same person wrote both of them. FDR, as with Wilson, did not mention emancipation, did not mention slavery, did not draw distinction a between the two causes - just said that these were Americans who fought gallantly and fought for their respective causes and isn't it wonderful that the united nation emerged from this great trauma.

SIEGEL: Let the record show, by the way, that during the energy crisis of the '70s, the eternal flame was replaced by a gigantic, atrocious but cheap light bulb or enormous light. And at the 125th anniversary in 1980, I actually took part in the relighting of it with gas - they rewired the thing.

GALLAGHER: They don't make that point now that it has actually not been an eternal light when you go to Gettysburg.

SIEGEL: It's a sporadic light. Twenty-five years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 1963 centennial - we heard a bit of Lyndon Johnson before - apparently he's been the exception to the rule in stating as having been a critical battle in the war to end slavery.

GALLAGHER: Absolutely. He took a very different path there and emphasized that the whole thrust of LBJ's speech had to do with race and civil rights and a commitment deferred.

SIEGEL: What about today? Is the battle of Gettysburg just history now, more remote than the battle of Midway or the Normandy landing?

GALLAGHER: I think the battle of Gettysburg now is seen almost universally, at least in the popular historical imagination in the United States, to the degree that exists, it seen as the great turning point of the civil war, that a Confederate victory might have been possible before Gettysburg. But after Gettysburg, it's pretty much a straight road to Appomattox.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Gallagher, thank you very much for talking with us on this the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.

GALLAGHER: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Gary Gallagher is a historian of the Civil War and a professor of history at the University of Virginia.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.