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September 24, 2010

My Summer with Lincoln

Joe Charlebois

This past summer has truly been one of immersion in the sixties, the 1860’s that is. In August I spent a week in the home of the great grandson of possibly the greatest admiral to serve for the Confederate States of America. I spent a day of reflection on the battlefields of Gettysburg, and another in Ford’s Theater where President Abraham Lincoln was slain.


My knowledge of the 1800’s – I realized – left much to be desired. I’d been living in the heart of Civil War country for the past 16 years and not until the past few years had I made a point to learn more about the hallowed grounds that surround me.


Last month my family and I were privileged to spend a wonderful week on the Little Choptank River just south of Cambridge, MD, in the home of the great grandson of Admiral Raphael Semmes, C.S.A.


Admiral Semmes was born just across the bay in Charles County. At age 17 he joined the United States Navy and was commended for his service in the Mexican-American War. He subsequently practiced law in Mobile, Alabama, after the war before serving lighthouse duties until 1860.


When Alabama seceded from the union in January of 1861, he petitioned for appointment to join the naval forces of the C.S.A. He then went on to serve as a major thorn in the side of the Union’s naval forces as he took a record 69 commerce vessels in the term of his duty. Semmes ended his service with Confederate forces as a brigadier general as he and his naval brigade surrendered to U.S. General William Sherman in 1865.


Over Labor Day weekend the city of Gettysburg played host to the Charlebois’. It was a beautiful weekend – cool in the morning and hot in the afternoon. It has been years since I visited Gettysburg to tour the National Military Park and a first with the family.


The first thing one notices – if they haven’t been to the park in recent years – is the construction of the brand new visitors’ center that includes the museum, movie theatre with a showing of “A New Birth of Freedom” narrated by Morgan Freeman and the world renowned cyclorama portrait of the Battle of Gettysburg. The visitor center is run by The Gettysburg Foundation in conjunction with the National Park Service and, of course, is replete with modern amenities such as a well stocked gift/book store and a pricey upscale cafeteria.


The tour of the battlefield can and should not be done without a trained guide or audio CD to take you through the events of the battle. The sheer size of the battlefield, and the distance between stops, make it nearly impossible to hike. It can be done but should be done over several days.


Upon touring the battlefield it is very difficult to comprehend the losses in terms of loss of life and human suffering. It is even more so as you stand behind the short stone wall that lies across the ridge between Emmitsburg Road and Taneytown Road and realize that thousands of Confederates marched over a mile in the open field – up hill! – to the awaiting federal forces who leaned their rifles or muskets on the wall for support as shells exploded nearby. It is hard to imagine that thousands were slaughtered in wave after wave in what is now known as Pickett’s Charge.


From the site of this country’s bloodiest three days of battle and the ground that President Lincoln blessed with his address to the memories of the fallen, we also made a trip to Ford’s Theatre in Washington.


Ford’s Theatre is the magnificently restored playhouse, which was, of course, the building where the actor and confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth took the life of our 16th President mere days after the surrender of Confederate forces at the Appomattox Court House.


The theatre now serves a dual purpose. Below the tiered seating, wide balcony and wooden planks that constitute the theatre’s main body lays an outstanding museum that highlights the struggle of the young nation as the issue of slavery and state’s rights split the nation and how the newly elected president dealt with these issues up until the night he was slain.


After a tour of the museum highlighted with a mix of video shorts and well designed displays, we climbed the stairs to re-enter the modern lobby that hosts the National Park Service and Ford’s Theatre gift shop.


On display in the lobby is a reproduction of the outfit that President Lincoln wore to the production of “Our American Cousin.” As you stand next to this display it is impossible to ignore what an intimidating presence Mr. Lincoln must have presented.


As the tour continued we were led into the theatre that since 1968 was once again holding productions to an estimated one million patrons a year. It is a beautiful theatre that has a wrap-around balcony over the orchestra seating. As you enter the lower level your attention is immediately drawn to the right side of the theater. The Presidential Box is in plain view as it hangs over the right side of the stage. It is an awe-inspiring vision as the box has been restored to the grandeur of that fateful night.


Looking back it is amazing what was handed President Lincoln when he swore his oath of office and what he had to deal with. He didn’t complain that President James Buchanan “kicked the can down the road.” He attacked the problems, never by blaming anybody; he just pursued his goal with a passion to save the union by all means necessary.


And an amazing job he did.


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