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.