What Are We Remembering at Gettysburg’s Remembrance Day?

For the past decade I have either participated in and or viewed Gettysburg’s annual Remembrance Day Parade.  To honor President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and those that gave their “last full measure of devotion,” Gettysburg has two different, annual events.  Commemorating the actual anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a yearly ceremony is held in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery on November 19.  The ceremony includes performances by the local high school band, dressed in replica Federal army uniforms, the recitation of the Gettysburg Address by veteran Abraham Lincoln impersonator Jim Getty, a keynote speaker, and a naturalization ceremony of varying numbers.  Competing for attendance is the Remembrance Day Parade in Gettysburg.  Occurring on the closest Saturday to November 19, the parade attracts thousands of spectators and reenactors alike.  But without a keynote, a recitation of the Gettysburg Address, or even a ceremony to relay its meaning, what does Gettysburg’s Remembrance Day Parade remember?

My interactions with the parade began as a spectator.  I had never visited Gettysburg in the “off-season” before.  Family trips, and as I grew older, solo ones, were always during the summer months but never around the battle anniversary.  As my level of interest, passion, and reverence for this time period grew, I became more attracted to the idea of being on those same hallowed grounds on the same days and times that our forbearers were.  Eventually I would experience being at Gettysburg on July 1 – 3, thus, my attention turned to being in Gettysburg for the observance of the Gettysburg Address.

In the early years of coming to Gettysburg in November I only came for the Remembrance Day Parade.  Being on the cusp of joining the swelled ranks of reenactors and living historians, the parade was the focal point of my attention.  Despite being in town I even ignored the luminary in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in the evening after the parade.  As years went by, I had joined the aforementioned community, put on my winter gear, white dress gloves, and marched down Baltimore Street with thousands of others.  Eventually I added the evening luminary to my schedule of events while in town for the parade.  Several years after that I even extended my stays to include the November 19 ceremony in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.  These traditions even continued after moving to Gettysburg and having easier access to attend and participate.  This year, however, for the first time I did not participate in or even view the parade.

After nearly a decade of being present in some capacity for the Remembrance Day Parade, I stopped to reflect on the question, what are we remembering at this remembrance parade?  Certainly a cursory look at the many dressed as period soldiers, civilians, and politicians of the time will produce an answer that we are remembering these people for their bravery and their sacrifice.  But this is only surface.  How do 9 Lee’s, 7 Jackson’s, 4 Grant’s, 3 Sherman’s, and 2 Longstreet’s honor those that actually lived during this turbulent period in our history?  Similarly, how do dogs wrapped in Confederate flags, more total general battle flags present than both armies had in 1863 at Gettysburg, and bright white linen dress gloves remember the deeper and more significant causes and consequences of this country’s Civil War? The answer is simple, they will not.

Attendance at each event also illuminates another layer to this answer.  The parade, as noted, witnesses thousands of reenactors and spectators, yet hardly several hundred attend the concluding ceremony at the Albert Woolson GAR monument along Cemetery Ridge.  The ceremony has few words and even fewer speakers, but the Gettysburg Address is recited.  The same lax attendance is seen in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery for the evening luminary, numbers far less than along and in the parade route.  This even extends to the November 19 ceremony in the cemetery where traditionally numbers do not match those witnessed during the parade.

I see no easy solution to ensure that there is more remembrance and reverence and less visual appeal to the annual Remembrance Day Parade.  I find that thoughts about the solution only leave more questions than answers.  How do we change societal interest and understanding of this event? Can attendance be increased to events that provide deeper contexts to this period of our nation’s history? How?  I offer no definitive solution other than personal advice.  If in Gettysburg for this annual event, make sure to include time for a walk through the graves in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, a reading of several of the thousands of names therein, and a moment of silence for those that “gave their last full measure of devotion.”  Only then can true remembrance of this moment in our past be realized.

About Daniel Welch

I am currently a primary and secondary educator with a public school district in northeast Ohio. Previously, I was the Education Programs Coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation, the non-profit partner of Gettysburg National Military Park, and have been a seasonal Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park for eight years. During that time, I have given numerous programs on the campaign and battle for school groups, families, and visitors of all ages. I received his BA in Instrumental Music Education from Youngstown State University where he studied under the famed French Hornist William Slocum, and am currently finishing his MA in Military History with a Civil War Era concentration at American Military University. I have also studied under the tutelage of Dr. Allen C. Guelzo as part of the Gettysburg Semester at Gettysburg College. I reside with my wife, Sarah, in Boardman, Ohio.
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3 Responses to What Are We Remembering at Gettysburg’s Remembrance Day?

  1. wdonohue1 says:

    A very thoughtful article. I imagine the parade is quite commercialized which also detracts from the true meaning of the commemoration.

  2. Ron Zanoni says:

    While I can’t speak for the organizers of the parade, in my opinion the parade is a gathering of reenactors and living historians to commemorate a time in U.S. history that had so much upheaval and divisiveness that it led to a civil war. These people not only march in the parade, but partake in other ceremonies mentioned in your article as well as a plethora of other ceremonies that take place that are not mentioned, such as wreath laying ceremonies. These same individuals spend their own money and time to keep the memory alive of the sacrifice and courage exhibited during the war. The parade is a premier gathering of reenactors and living historians from across the country to partake in a different type of ceremony by marching through the streets of the town. I see no issue in the continuance of that, everyone loves a parade. I agree that there are more solemn ways to commemorate this historic event, hence the battlefield and luminary ceremonies. Perhaps more people would attend those if they were publicized more.

  3. Susan Mertz says:

    Remembrance day weekend is one of the busiest weekends of the year for my family. On Thursday as soon as we get to the battlefield we are placing flags and wreaths at the regimental markers of our ancestors and those soldiers who came from our hometown. Friday morning we will be placing national and state flags at the Pennsylvania section of the national cemetery.As we travel around the battlefield we see many people who are also placing flags at their ancestors regimental or state memorial. On Saturday we will attend the GAR memorial service at the Woolson memorial then off to the other end of town to line up for the parade. Our next event will be the 86th annual Dedication Day dinner, a quick trip to the Illumination, then off to the SVR ball which is a fundraiser for the battlefield. I would love to hear LeVar Burton speak but will not have time. I will also not have time to attend the Catholic mass on the battlefield by the memorial to Father Corby or the regimental band concert on LTR. Nor will I have time to attend the USCT ceremony at the national cemetery or Lincoln Cemetery. As I get around the field and cemetery I will see pictures of soldiers and a variety of mementos on graves and memorials that will silently let me know that the gift of remembrance has been brought there. The parade is not at all commercialized but is a heartfelt remembrance commemorating the march of Union troops and President Lincoln to the dedication of the national cemetery. We are not reciting the Gettysburg Address but are living it by never forgetting what they did there and we come from all over the US to do just that. Remembrance is a gift that can be seen all over Gettysburg that weekend. Look and listen, TAPS will be heard all weekend.

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