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Iowa City pays tribute to 150th anniversary of Gettsyburg Address

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | NOVEMBER 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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Exactly 150 years ago Tuesday, 50,000 Americans died in one single bloody day. The Battle of Gettysburg the most famous battle of the Civil War, was horrific and tragic but unarguably an important part of American history. The battle culminated in the long-remembered Gettysburg Address.

To commemorate the battle and President Lincoln’s speech, “Songs of the Civil War” was held Tuesday night at Old Brick, a building built during the Civil War. Between the dim lighting, the historic setting, the men in militia wear, and the authentic camp scene set up on the stage, the building seemed the obvious choice for such an event.

Wayne Neuzil, the organizer and main performer, has long been interested in history and relished in the opportunity to bring remembrance of such a significant event to the community.

“I think [Gettysburg] is a part of our history that’s been forgotten, and this is a small way of remembering how big a part of our history this is,” he said.

Several months ago, Neuzil was struck by how little people seemed to know about the Civil War.

“My change at a hardware store came to $18.65, and I asked the cashier what event warranted the significance of that year,” the Iowa City native said. “She guessed World War I. In the latest research, more than 700,000 Americans died during the Civil War, more than any other war. It’s important to remember.”

To help people remember, Neuzil, a well-established operatic baritone who trained at the Mozarteum, decided to arrange this concert, exactly 150 years after Gettysburg, consisting of songs that would have been sung at the time.

The selection of songs, from both Union and Confederate troops, showed the devastation this war brought into the homes of citizens juxtaposed with the joyous moments of the war. While the Civil War is remembered mostly for its bloodshed, the performers Tuesday reminded the crowds that these soldiers were young men as well, creating silly songs to relieve the stress and heartache of a war fought against neighbors.

As Neuzil cajoled the crowd into singing along, Old Brick began to buzz, and it was easy to imagine young men, bands of brothers, joining in singing these songs around a campfire after a long day of work.

“There were more than 10,000 songs written during the Civil War about the war,” Neuzil said. “And both sides kind of plagiarized the other side. They all changed the words, and there would be times each side would be camped across the river and would sing back and forth to each other.”

The performers for this concert similarly had to slightly alter the songs.

“A lot of these songs, we had to change the lyrics a little bit, we don’t sing about ‘darkies,’ ” said accompanist Tom Nothnagle. “Personally, I don’t like revisionist history; people should know what happened at the time. The Civil War was a dark, bloody war. As citizens, we should know the history.”

Gerry Partridge helped with the historical accuracy — he attempted to embody Abraham Lincoln and recited the Gettysburg Address word for word as it had originally been presented.

There was quite a bit of preparation that went into presenting the writing, because Neuzil places such high importance on the speech.

“It may be the greatest speech ever written,” Neuzil said. “The guy before [Lincoln] spoke for two hours, and Lincoln said more than he did in three minutes.”

Partridge also noticed the beauty and simplicity in the structure of the speech.

“At the very end of the speech — it is such a lawyerly device that Lincoln uses, and I never realized it until I was reading it for the 44th time — he said, ‘We here highly resolve.’ If you look at the bills that Congress resolves or city councils resolve, it is the same phrase they use,” Partridge said. “He’s taking the fact that there’s been this huge sacrifice of life, and giving us this resolution. I’m looking at this thinking, ‘This is exactly how a lawyer or a legislator would resolve this tragedy.’ ”

As a lawyer himself, Partridge was familiar with the strategy Lincoln employed. While this resolution of Lincoln’s may not have brought closure or peace to the war, it certainly helped everyone at Old Brick remember the bloody battle and the sacrifices made.

From the eldest guests down to the children climbing their seats and laughing at the silliest of the songs, Songs of the Civil War helped to ensure that, as Lincoln wished, the world “can never forget what they did here … these dead shall not have died in vain.”


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