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Blog: Reimagining Gettysburg

Revisiting Our Dialogue for Greater Civility (Guest Blog Post)

December 18, 2019

Disagreement permeates American public life, with tribal warfare in full view on social media—and our leaders reflecting that warfare, locked in struggle and public policymaking at a standstill. Citizens tell pollsters the steady conflict is and has become a significant source of stress in their personal lives. That’s why in June 2017, seeing the nation needed to call upon lessons of history at Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Foundation Board of Directors reaffirmed its mission to preserve Gettysburg National Military Park and the Eisenhower National Historic Site and to educate the public about their significance.

The Board also adopted a vision for Gettysburg to become a leading place in the nation for non-partisan, constructive dialogue about citizenship, leadership, conflict and conciliation on American democracy. In short, the Board wanted the Foundation to get out and help our country. Like our history following the Civil War, not everyone was kind. Reunions were difficult at best. Yet much kindness was shown. America’s leaders, starting with Lincoln—and his great address—came to Gettysburg to lead the healing, show kindness, demonstrate civility and remind us we are so much better off united, when conciliation triumphs over conflict—inclusion over division.

Gettysburg Foundation President Matt Moen fanned out across the country to visit with anyone who would listen, and asked volunteers to help spread the word that my generation may not be handing off to the next generation, a functioning democracy, but we can be molders of how to fix it. The new vision is a compelling one for the Foundation because it speaks to every American in a new way. The offer to invite the nation back to Gettysburg—to “revisit Gettysburg” and reimagine Gettysburg by looking back in history—is a timely and vital offer to the nation.

I had just retired, felt I could make a contribution and volunteered. From my home base in Lawrence, Kansas, I have spoken to a dozen groups in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas. It has been my pleasure to introduce hundreds of Americans, who didn’t even know the Gettysburg Foundation existed, to the many contributions it has made at Gettysburg and encourage them to visit, revisit and reimagine Gettysburg.

Jim Hanni (second from left) with officers of Omaha West Rotary Club

I have received many great questions and comments from audiences. At the Downtown Dallas Rotary Club, concern was expressed over protection of civil war monuments. At the Omaha West Rotary, a member of the Jewish faith informed me after my program that he and the club’s president, a woman of Indian descent, were forming a discussion group on inclusivity, civility and kindness and wanted to be informed by our work. Nearly every group wants to know how much time to spend in Gettysburg when they visit, how to see it, and they want to know more about the Cyclorama painting.

As a Kansan, I am most proud to tell them about my state’s favorite son, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who brought world leaders there to break down walls of conflict. I like to quote Eisenhower on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “Lincoln had faith that the ancient drums of Gettysburg, throbbing mutual defiance from the battle lines of the blue and the gray, would one day beat in unison…to fulfill...a noble destiny.” His faith has been justified—but the unfinished work of which he spoke in 1863 is still unfinished. Because of human frailty, it always will be. We read Lincoln’s sentiments, we ponder his words, BUT WE HAVE NOT PAID TO HIS MESSAGE ITS JUST TRIBUTE UNTIL WE, OURSELVES, LIVE IT!” At the Omaha Rotary Club, in this moment of sharing the Eisenhower message, the audience erupted in applause, which gave ME goosebumps!

Jim Hanni, “Gettysburg Revisited” presentation, Waxahachie, Texas Rotary Club

I’m anxious to speak to more gatherings of people who want to learn about Gettysburg and reimagine this special place, as Foundation Emeritus Board member, James McPherson called it, “America’s Hallowed Ground.”  Not everyone has interest in battles. Not everyone has ancestors who fought at Gettysburg. All Americans, though, regardless of national origin/ancestry, are likely to have an interest in dialogue to foster healing, kindness, greater civility and union in this nation of immigrants, using the Gettysburg lessons. It’s what Lincoln wanted, and we think Gettysburg is such a place for that discussion.

James R. Hanni
Secretary, Gettysburg Foundation