On November 19, 1963, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered a speech in Gettysburg’s national cemetery to commemorate the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. (For details on the event and Ike’s speech, see this post, “Ike, JFK, and the Gettysburg Address,” I wrote back in 2017.)
Recently, I was doing a little extra work on the subject, and I reached out to my friend Dan Vermilya, a historian at Eisenhower National Historic Site, which sits adjacent to (and is administered by) Gettysburg National Military Site. Dan gave me some great insights into Ike’s special relationship with the battlefield, which he was gracious enough to let me share. (Thanks, Dan!)
Chris M: Why did Ike choose Gettysburg as a place to retire? What did he like about living there?
Dan V: Gettysburg always loomed large for Ike. He first came here in 1915 with his West Point Class on a battlefield staff ride, and then returned here in 1918 for his first independent command, Camp Colt, a tank training camp on the grounds of Pickett’s Charge. Those early memories helped Ike develop a fondness for this area, and in 1950 when he and Mamie were looking for a retirement home–their first home they would ever actually own together–Gettysburg was the perfect choice. Eisenhower had long said after his military career he wanted to retire as a farmer, and their Gettysburg farm was an idyllic setting for such a goal. Of course, it helped that the farm they bought shared a boundary with the Gettysburg battlefield. The former general never could escape war, or studying it, even in his retirement.
Of course, after buying the farm, history had a few other things in store for Ike. He did not think that the farm would end up becoming a working White House for him at numerous times during his two terms as president, but that is exactly what happened.
Eisenhower loved living so close to the Gettysburg battlefield. During his presidency he frequently brought world leaders to his farm for diplomatic visits, and one of the staples was going out on the battlefield. He also loved the serene setting and beautiful views of the surrounding area.
Chris M: What is your reaction to Ike’s speech commemorating the Gettysburg Address’s centennial?
Dan V: Eisenhower was always drawn to the Civil War, and thus it’s fascinating that he played an important role in the Gettysburg centennial. He delivered a speech on June 30, 1963, for the centennial of the battle itself, but his more noteworthy remarks came on Nov 19, 1963, in the National Cemetery. When he commanded troops at Camp Colt in 1918, Ike frequently went to the National Cemetery to read the Gettysburg Address to himself near where Lincoln delivered it. It is very fitting that he was the keynote speaker for the 100th anniversary of the address.
For the speech itself, it contained many themes which Ike spoke on throughout his life. Eisenhower believed very deeply in the importance of active citizenship, that it was up to each one of us to do our part in preserving democracy. That was a central feature in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and it shines through in Ike’s speech commemorating the moment 100 years later.