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Rites of Passage for Your Son

David Wills faced a monumental task. Governor Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania appointed him to oversee the burial of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. In addition, the 32-year-old attorney was to plan a dedication ceremony for this pivotal Civil War battle.

The task was daunting. Following the July 1863 conflict, Gettysburg had taken on the appearance — and the stench — of an open-air mortuary. Thousands of human bodies lay scattered over the fields and hills, decaying in the heat. Others were buried but, as Willis reported to Governor Curtin, "in many instances arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude, and my attention had been directed to several places where the hogs were actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them."1 Human scavengers picked at the exposed bodies for anything of value. Meanwhile, grieving relatives scoured the fields, searching for fathers and sons. Gettysburg had become a "carnival of carnage." Like a scene from Dante's Inferno, the grisly features of death were pervasive, revolting, visceral.

Something had to be done. David Wills did it. But at every turn, he was like a man stumbling in the dark. He started by forming an interstate commission to finance the project. Seventeen acres were purchased for a cemetery, and a company was retained to exhume, prepare and bury the bodies. (Willis had hoped to have the burial completed before the November ceremony, but it wouldn't be finished until the following spring.)

Having resolved the pressing issues of burial and hygiene, the agent turned his attention toward the ceremony itself. Willis desired to memorialize the sacrifices of these brave men by staging an elaborate ceremony. According to the conventional wisdom of his day, this entailed securing a powerful orator who could lend dignity to the event, someone who would speak for two hours (as was the custom) and bring a lofty perspective to the proceedings. Without question, Edward Everett was the man.

An Ivy League scholar and former Secretary of State, Everett was considered the preeminent orator of his generation. He had dedicated the battlefields at Lexington and Concord as well as Bunker Hill. Almost as an afterthought, David Wills also extended an invitation — two months later — to President Lincoln, with the request that Lincoln deliver only "a few appropriate remarks."

On November 19, 1863, an estimated 20,000 people gathered for the ceremony. They had traveled by horse, train and carriage from as far away as Minnesota to participate in the event. Under a blue sky, Lincoln and Everett, along with a host of other dignitaries, sat on a raised platform amid a sea of onlookers.

The ceremony began. First there was music. Then a prayer. And more music. Then it was time for the keynote address. Edward Everett's presentation was worthy of his reputation. For two hours, he held the crowd in thrall with his fiery language, his childlike animation and his detailed description of the battle.

Following a hymn, Lincoln stepped to the podium. "Four score and seven years ago," he began ... and before anyone knew it, he was finished. The crowd, which hadn't expected much, was still surprised by the brevity of his speech. Historian Garry Wills, in his much-acclaimed book Lincoln at Gettysburg, alludes to the story of a photographer who, expecting the president to be at the podium for a while, missed his shot while he slowly set up his camera.2 In 272 words, the president said what he wanted to say and then sat down. The choir sang a dirge, the Reverend H.L. Baugher gave the benediction, and it was over.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Expecting the Unexpected

I share this story to illustrate two important points that will guide and encourage you as you plan manhood ceremonies for your son. First, keep in mind that creating ceremonies is an experimental process. Like David Wills, you will be working in something of a vacuum. However, you can succeed. Later in this module, I will detail the four ceremonies that two other fathers and I have created for our sons. These are now fairly polished and refined. But it wasn't this way at the beginning. When we started this experimental process — much like David Wills — we didn't know what we were doing. All we had was a lofty objective: to ceremonialize a vision for manhood. Our final product developed over time, after much trial and error.

Second, ceremonies produce surprises. David Wills had no idea that Lincoln's speech — not Everett's — would be the defining moment at Gettysburg. Lincoln's participation was ancillary, almost accidental. Yet when we think of Gettysburg, we recall the "Gettysburg Address." Few of us have ever heard of Edward Everett.

The point is, the outcome of ceremonies can be surprising. This was true at Gettysburg; it is equally true of the manhood ceremonies with which we are familiar. In case after case, the testimony of sons about their manhood ceremonies verifies this important point. They express a feeling of awe. They are overwhelmed that their father, and others, would take the time and invest the money to create such memorable experiences.

As dads, we have been overwhelmed, too. The power of ceremony to reaffirm a son's shaky identity, in some cases redirect his life, and empower his future was wholly unexpected. We have been amazed at the powerful results of our small investment.


1Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 21.
2Ibid., 34.
 

 
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