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Reliving history



Published: Sun, January 20, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By RON COBB

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- We know now that Abraham Lincoln sold himself woefully short when he started one of the 10 sentences that made up the Gettysburg Address by saying, "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here ..."

The president had been asked to come to Gettysburg to offer "a few appropriate remarks" Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

So certain was he that he'd failed that when he returned to his chair, he remarked to an aide, "That speech won't scour" -- an expression referring to a plow whose blade won't come clean and do its job.

(Self-deprecation was a Lincoln trademark. When, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, political foe Stephen Douglas accused him of being two-faced, Lincoln replied, "If I had another face, do you think I'd wear this one?")

We know now what Americans have known for generations -- that the two-minute speech delivered by Lincoln at Gettysburg was a masterpiece of vision, clarity and eloquence.

How well it scoured: Though Lincoln would learn in the weeks that followed that his speech would indeed scour, he might be astonished to learn that 138 years later, Americans are so deeply moved by the Gettysburg Address that some of them plan vacations around a celebration of it.

Every year in the third week of November, HistoryAmerica Tours offers "Lincoln at Gettysburg," a three-day smorgasbord of insights into the nation's 16th president as well as the Battle of Gettysburg, which preceded Lincoln's address by 41/2 months.

John C. Waugh, author of "Re-electing Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency," was the principal historian on November's tour. He was ably abetted by Frank Williams, chairman of the Lincoln Forum and chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Waugh made three 30-minute talks on Lincoln during the Nov. 17-19 tour. Williams spoke on Union Gen. George Gordon Meade and his role in the Army of the Potomac's victory over Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

With plenty of activity packed into three days, the HistoryAmerica tour delivered numerous highlights:

UOn Nov. 19, the group attended the town's annual Dedication Day program at Gettysburg National Cemetery. The keynote speaker was U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and he was followed to the lectern by James Getty, a Lincoln portrayer who recited the Gettysburg Address. The program, embellished by a color guard, brass band and the attendance of a dozen or more people in period dress, was capped by a soloist's inspiring rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The preceding night, the group attended the Lincoln Forum's annual dinner.

UOn the evening of Nov. 19, the group assembled at its base, the deluxe Gettysburg Hotel, to hear a local musician play hammer dulcimer, banjo and button accordion and sing Civil War-era songs. The musician taught the group to sing the chorus of "We Are Coming, Father Abraham," a song that celebrated the enlistment of new recruits for the Union Army. The group then walked next door to the historic Wills House to serenade Lincoln, just as townsfolk did with that same song on the evening of Nov. 18, 1863, while Lincoln was in his room putting the finishing touches on the Gettysburg Address.

As the group sang, Getty, the Lincoln portrayer, appeared at the same window of the Wills House where Lincoln did, said a few words and invited the group to join him upstairs. Getty then fielded questions from the group for a half-hour, all the while staying in character.

UThe group spent two days touring the Gettysburg battlefields, each day with a different battlefield guide. The guides, Timothy Smith and Wayne Motts, are both historians and authors of books on the Civil War. They enthusiastically re-created the battle, discussed strategy, dispelled a few misconceptions created by the TV-movie "Gettysburg" and offered opinions about some of the key figures at Gettysburg.

The chronological tours of the battlefields ended when the group re-enacted Pickett's Charge, the Confederates' disastrous assault of the well-entrenched Federals on the third and final day of the battle.

Popularity: Crammed with history, "Lincoln at Gettysburg" is a tour that attracts people who have more than just a passing interest in Lincoln and the Civil War. Our group of 20 included travelers from all over the country, 14 of whom attended solo.

HistoryAmerica Tours was set to offer 31 different tours in 2002 until it was hit with the double whammy of the Sept. 11 attacks and the demise of the steamboat Delta Queen when American Classic Voyages declared bankruptcy. Nine of the 31 tours had to be canceled because they involved travel on the Delta Queen.

Pete Brown, who owns the Dallas-based HistoryAmerica Tours with his wife, Julia, has been scrambling to revise the 2002 schedule during a time when tour operators are suffering.

Brown, a history major in college, was in the construction business and living in Chicago when he saw the Ken Burns television series on the Civil War and was inspired to visit the Shiloh battlefield in Tennessee. That trip prompted him to make a career change at age 50.

"I came back with a vision of doing something like this," he said, "with good historians and walking the grounds, as our motto says, 'taking you where history happened."'

He started in 1991, emphasizing Civil War sites, then expanding to the Indian Wars and cruises on American waterways.

Over the years Brown has enlisted such prominent historians as Ed Bearss, James McPherson and Gary Moulton. Bearss, featured prominently in Burns' Civil War series, is one of HistoryAmerica's biggest draws.

Effect of Sept. 11: Brown thinks the events of Sept. 11 will result in schools' putting a renewed emphasis on American history, and he hopes to benefit from American travelers' shift from international travel to domestic travel.

"We had steady growth until Sept. 11," he said. "We're not different from any other tour company. There are people who are hesitant to travel.

"But we'll have our new brochure ready soon. It'll have Uncle Sam on the cover, and it'll say, 'We want you in 2002!"'




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