Gettysburg and other addresses

A statue of Abraham Lincoln at the National Military Park Museum.
A statue of Abraham Lincoln at the National Military Park Museum. Photo: AFP

After Barack Obama's swearing-in for a second term, David Whitley traces the story of another US president immortalised in a new movie.

With Barack Obama safely inaugurated for a second term, the spotlight is shifting to another US president: Abraham Lincoln. Steven Spielberg's biopic of the great emancipator, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, is up for 12 Oscars. It opens in Australia on Thursday.

The small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, 135 kilometres north-west of Washington, DC, is where the man became the legend. But the statue of Lincoln outside Gettysburg's Visitor Centre is suitably humble: he sits undemonstratively on a bench, watching the busloads of schoolkids and American Civil War enthusiasts file past. On November 19, 1863, Lincoln came here to say a few words. He was attending the consecration of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in the grief-stricken town that had been the site of the civil war's bloodiest battle just four months earlier.

His 272-word speech was little more than an addendum to the ramblings of other dignitaries, but it came to be regarded as one of history's most powerful pieces of oratory. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address managed to assure people that the bloodshed of the war was not in vain, that the soldiers had given their lives for a vital cause. He signed off with: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." It's one of many phrases from the speech that have been repeated and adapted numerous times in the intervening 150 years.

Gettysburg is, arguably, the best place in the US for understanding the civil war. The battlefields, memorials and museum combine to paint a picture of a rapidly expanding nation divided by the issue of slavery. Within that, however, a picture of the greatest US president emerges.

In one room, the Gettysburg Address is looped, read by an actor mimicking Lincoln's surprisingly soft and reedy, but unwavering, voice. It fits a man of quiet strength and pragmatism, who worked through calculated gambles, rather than antagonistic showboating.

Other displays show Lincoln's key priority was to keep the Union - and what it stood for - together. Everything else, including the abolition of slavery, was secondary to that. His January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation - which declared all slaves in Confederate territory would be free - was a good example. It was as much about getting the slaves to fight for the Union as about lofty ideals. That freedom, notably, didn't apply to slaves within the few Union states that had not yet abolished the practice.

Other sides to Lincoln's personality can be found at his former home in Washington, DC. He tended to use the White House strictly as an office whenever possible. He preferred to stay almost five kilometres to the north, at a cottage in a complex for veteran soldiers.

Lincoln's Cottage is a surprisingly humble affair on a hilltop. But the breezes it attracted during the summer months were the main attraction. The cottage is now open to the public, and due to the lack of artefacts from Lincoln's time, the tours of it become a mobile lecture about the man. It's the better for this - the guides have clearly studied their subject.

They cover some of the extraordinary difficulties Lincoln had to face, such as grieving for his 11-year-old son, Willie, who died in February 1862. Mourning and being there for his utterly distraught wife at a time when the Union's chances in the civil war were at their darkest must have been painfully conflicting.

He also had to deal with people coming to the cottage at all hours to ask questions and present petitions - ordinary Americans had jaw-dropping levels of access to their president. The guide tells a story of Lincoln once snapping and launching into a "How dare you?" rant at a late-night visitor, before seeking him out to apologise the next day.

Also surprising is how Lincoln would usually ride unaccompanied every day between the cottage and the White House. He would usually take the same route - making him a remarkably easy target for would-be assassins. This makes Lincoln's eventual assassination inside Ford's Theatre in downtown Washington even stranger. On April 14, 1865, an actor with matinee-idol looks and Confederate loyalties snuck into Lincoln's box while he was watching Our American Cousin, a popular farce of the time. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head, and the president died from his wounds the next day.

The museum at Ford's Theatre puts a lot of focus on the hunt for Booth and his conspirators, but it's at its most fascinating when it concentrates on the global reaction to Lincoln's death. The theatre had to close as people threatened to burn it down if it reopened. It was bought by the government and in 1968 became part theatre, part historic landmark, part museum.

Lincoln's body was put in a casket and taken on a tour of 11 cities; Scandinavian countries put their flags at half-mast; Queen Victoria wrote to his widow, Mary Todd, empathising with her grief. The reaction also represented an astonishing turnaround. Less than a year before, his own Republican party was thinking of turfing Lincoln - who was still seen as something of a country bumpkin - off the presidential ticket, rather than letting him go for a second term. Lincoln is now an icon, one used by leaders to represent what they want him to represent. Displays are littered with glowing quotes from the presidents who followed him. But perhaps the most memorable quote comes from Lincoln himself. As at Gettysburg, this complex character showed himself capable of snappy, powerful simplicity when he said: "If I really had two faces, do you think I would hide behind this one?"

The writer was a guest of Destination, DC. washington.org.

 

Trip notes

Do it

Ford's Theatre (+1 202 347 4833, fordstheatre.org) and Lincoln's Cottage (+1 202 829 0436, lincolncottage.org) are in Washington, DC. Advanced booking is strongly advised for both.

Gettysburg is 135 kilometres and less than two hours' drive from Washington, DC. The Gettysburg National Military Park covers the Civil War battlefields, with the Museum and Visitor Centre (+1 717 338 1243, gettysburgfoundation.org) being its centrepiece.

Staying there

The Fairmont Washington, DC (2401 M Street, NW, +1 202 429 2400, fairmont.com/washington), feels suitably presidential, while being relaxing enough for visiting dignitaries. Rooms cost from $US320 ($307) a night.

Getting there

United has return flights from Sydney to Washington Dulles, via Los Angeles, from $1387. 13 17 77, united.com.

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