Alexia Kemerling, Hiram College Garfield Presidency Scholar, recaps her experiences on the group’s spring study tour to Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. The trip was led by Douglas Brattebo, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and director of the James A. Garfield Center for the Study of the American Presidency. Twenty-four students, first-years to seniors, from a wide range of majors, took part in this trip.
Over the course of the 2018-2019 year, we have immersed ourselves in the study of Abraham Lincoln. In the fall, we traveled to Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois to retrace Lincoln’s formative years, seeking along the way to understand the personal character of our sixteenth president. On April 11, we set out for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., with the intent of appraising Lincoln as a leader.
Our first stop was at the Gettysburg National Battlefield. As we drove up to the Visitors Center, we gazed out the windows of our bus, taking in the expansive meadows and rolling hills of the historic battlefield we had read so much about. Inside the museum, we found ourselves quite literally in the center of history as we stood on a central platform and gazed at Paul Philippoteaux’s cyclorama, “Battle of Gettysburg.” Cycloramas, essentially massive panoramic oil paintings that give you a 360-degree view of a scene, were a popular form of entertainment in the 1800s. Yet, more than two-hundred years later, I found myself captivated by the painting’s depth and detail. The cyclorama is 377 feet long, 42 feet high, and coated in several tons of paint.
With the striking images from Philippoteaux’s artwork in our minds, we then set out on a guided bus tour of the battlefield itself. Our guide pointed out the locations of several landmarks I had recognized in the cyclorama—Cemetery Ridge, Big Round Top and Little Round Top, and The Peach Orchard. We traced the movements of both the Confederate and the Union armies during this battle. After the tour, we discussed the significance of the Union’s victory in this battle. Was it really a turning point? We came to a general consensus that while the battle was undeniably important, if the Union had in fact been defeated here, its forces still would not have given up. As a leader, and as Commander in Chief, Lincoln did not give up easily. He was determined and dedicated, willing to play the long game and incur whatever costs were required to persevere.
It is often tempting when looking back on the turbulent times of our history to long for simple answers, to be able to point to definitive moments of change. The real truth is that change happens slowly, in fits and starts. Literal and social revolutions led by slaves, both freed and captive, and the relentless efforts of abolitionists, contributed to The Emancipation Proclamation long before the Civil War began. Similarly, the events of Lincoln’s early life, which likely seemed insignificant to him in his time, prepared him to face the unthinkable challenges that his time in the land’s highest office brought to him.
After our tour, we made our way to the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. There we met with Dr. Matthew Pinsker, professor of history at Dickinson College and noted Lincoln Scholar. Dr. Pinsker pointed out the spot where Lincoln delivered his immortal “Gettysburg Address” in November 1863. The speech is famously short, and to me this brevity exemplifies one of Lincoln’s great qualities as a leader—his ability to frame current events within the big picture, in this case reminding American citizens what the hardships and losses of these battles were really for. Lincoln had the incredible ability to hone in on what was most important, framing a harsh reality into something noble and abstract that people could understand, and bearing the weight of all the logistical worries on his own shoulders. In that moment, and still today, Lincoln reminds the American people that good things are worth the time it takes to fight for them.
We continued our conversation with Dr. Pinsker at the Historic Wills House in downtown Gettysburg where Lincoln slept the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address. Our discussion highlighted the many different ways that scholars interpret Lincoln as a leader. Was Lincoln passive in his legislative and other endeavors? Did he intend to sign The Emancipation Proclamation for its own value in 1863, or was it simply a tactical necessity for winning the war and saving the Union? While every scholar may have their own opinion on these questions, we cannot deny that through his pragmatic determination and adherence to strict ethical principles, he accomplished perhaps more good in his single full term than any other president.
Before leaving Gettysburg the following day, we took one last tour of the battlefield—this time on horseback, experiencing the landscape in an intimate manner by riding out along the right flank of Pickett’s Charge, the doomed charge that that marked the high-water point of the Confederacy’s fortunes.
From there, it was on to the Capitol. Though the city of Washington D.C. has changed drastically since Lincoln’s time, relics of his years there still remain. While we overlooked the grand Reading Room of the Library of Congress, I thought about how Lincoln once scoured those shelves for books he could use to teach himself military strategies during the Civil War.
Next we visited Ford’s Theater. From our velvet seats in the balcony, we could make out the chamber of box seats where the president and his wife spent their final moments together. After a presentation on that fatal night, we crossed the street to visit the Peterson House, where Lincoln drew his final breath on April 15th, 1865. As we stood outside the inconspicuous brick building, I could not help but remember a book we had read earlier this spring: President Lincoln: Assassinated!! by Harold Holzer. The book is a catalog of primary source documents from April 14-April 15, 1865, and subsequent years, in the form of diary entries, memoirs, testimonies, newspaper reports, and speeches. Seeing the places described by the witnesses in Holzer’s book reminded me how the unexpected loss of Lincoln influenced the country in incalculable ways.
Naturally, we ended our tour at the National Mall. Over the course of this school year, we had visited the Bluegrass State where Lincoln lived in an ordinary boyhood existence. We had wandered the small city in Illinois where he began to forge his way as a politician. We had met people all along the way who told stories of how Lincoln’s intelligence, empathy, compassion, industry, and determination had always made him remarkable. So as we stood near the edge of the Lincoln Memorial and gazed up at the marble steps, grand columns, and glimpsed the monument of the man inside, the immortality of The Great Emancipator was awe-inspiring. As the inscription above his marble likeness reminds us: “Here in this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory if Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”