Dodging the Bullet: First-Year Walk Allows Lincoln’s Legacy to Live On

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By Shannon Zeltmann, Contributing Writer

As I first started learning about Gettysburg College, the tradition that stood out to me was one of the most historical walks we will ever take as Gettysburgians, known as the First Year Walk. This historic walk first happened 154 years ago, as students and staff left the college as classes had been cancelled to walk to the newly-established Gettysburg National Cemetery. Why had classes been cancelled on that day? David Wills, founder of the cemetery, invited Lincoln and several other politicians to speech at the dedication ceremony. Lincoln’s famous address would later become one of the most praised speeches of the English language.

College President Janet Morgan Riggs told the entire class this story in the Chapel last Thursday, the second day of Orientation.  I was reminded one of the important things about this community, the rich history this town has. We are all walking through a museum everyday as we stand where one of the biggest battles in the Civil War took place. Riggs described how the students of Gettysburg must have felt coming back after the three days of fighting to find that Penn Hall had been converted into a field hospital for the Confederate Army. As a Civil War history buff, I had heard about the use of Penn Hall before coming here, but what was astounding was the fact that 700 wounded soldiers laid at Penn Hall when the students came back on July 4th … that’s close to the size of the Class of 2021. It is hard to believe 700 wounded men were treated for their injuries in Penn Hall. It is even more surprising to think about the stories they could tell and what the students must have been thinking during that day.

However, fast forward to 2004, when a student learned about the history of the college during the Battle at Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address. The first-year walk began that year to teach the incoming first-year student about the importance of history at Gettysburg.

This year, the walk was amazing; there was perfect weather as we began to walk towards the national cemetery. The history buff in me made me think about random facts about Gettysburg. We passed the theatre with their marquee welcoming the Class of 2021, the Wills house where Lincoln finished writing his famous words, the enthusiastic marching band, current students, alumni, and citizens of the town, and buildings that had been converted into small museums with bullet holes scattered across the south sides of the buildings where Confederate troops came up the streets.

We finally reached the cemetery where we sat and listened to the Mayor of Gettysburg, Theodore Streeter, talk about our relationship with the town.

Then, Dr. Jennifer Bloomquist, Associate Provost for Faculty Development & Dean of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Programs, spoke on the heels of an incident of what she called “domestic terrorism” in Charlottesville, and asserted that America still has a long way to go with equality and can still learn much from the words of Lincoln. Lincoln’s address, she said, told the audience, “Yes, America was worth fighting for.”

The two-minute Gettysburg Address, which famously begins, “Four scores and seven years ago…” will live on as we began our Gettysburg experience with one of the most special traditions of the college.

Editor’s Note: This article is the eighth of our series “Dodging the Bullet: The First Year Journal,” in which The Gettysburgian‘s staff members from the Class of 2021 share stories, reflections, and perspective on their first year experience. You can read the full series here. (BP)

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Author: Shannon Zeltmann

Shannon Zeltmann '21 is planning on double majoring in history and art history. She is also planning on being part of the Symphony Orchestra, the Civil War Club, and Nerd Nation. Shannon is an all-around nerd, who loves art and history too much and loves to read, draw, and play her cello on the side. She is excited to be a new member of The Gettysburgian team.

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