11/15/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

President Obama: Why You Should Come to Gettysburg

Dear President Obama,

My family and I were disappointed to learn you've decided not to attend the 150th anniversary commemoration of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in Pennsylvania this November 19. I write this open letter to you in the hope you will reconsider. Your participation would not only add another chapter to the rich history of Gettysburg, but would serve as a reminder to the next generation of Americans of the sacrifices made on that battlefield -- sacrifices for the principles of freedom, human dignity, and popular government.

During July 1863, Union and Confederate forces fought the bloodiest battle in our nation's history in and around the fields and hills of Gettysburg. More than 51,000 soldiers from both sides suffered casualties. The fighting marked a turning point of the Civil War and a defeat for the Confederacy from which it never recovered. The battle also inspired President Lincoln to offer a few appropriate remarks five months later during his famous Gettysburg Address, in which he dedicated the cemetery where many of the Union dead lay buried.

Beginning with the opening lines well known to every American -- Four score and seven years ago . . . -- Lincoln's 272-word Address lasted just two and a half minutes, yet captured the true meaning of the battle -- that ordinary men were willing to sacrifice their lives so that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish. The handwritten remarks Lincoln jotted down on two or three sheets of paper, littered with scratch-outs and carets, became one of the greatest speeches in the history of the English language. Not bad for someone who said, The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here . . . .

So central was this battle to our nation's history that other presidents followed in Lincoln's footsteps. To honor those who died at Gettysburg, Woodrow Wilson spoke at the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1913. FDR dedicated the Eternal Peace Memorial on the battlefield during the "Last Reunion of the Blue and Gray" in 1938. And Dwight Eisenhower, who spoke at the 100th anniversary in 1963, felt such a connection to the battlefield that he chose to live on an adjoining farm following his retirement.

Presidents aren't the only ones moved by their pilgrimages to Gettysburg. Ordinary people draw inspiration from Gettysburg's hallowed grounds, too. More than 18 million Americans have ancestors who fought at Gettysburg or during the Civil War. And each year 1.2 million visitors crowd Gettysburg to bear witness to the final resting place for those who . . . gave their lives that [our] nation might live.

My family is no exception. My grandfather fought in the battle and was wounded five times, and by a miracle, survived his wounds and subsequent ordeal in a Civil War hospital. My father, before his death in 1998, attended every major anniversary of the battle, including the 1913, 1938, 1963, and 1988 commemorations. And this summer I continued our family tradition by bringing my two sons to the events marking the battle's 150th anniversary.

So you see, Mr. President, Gettysburg is important not just to the history of our country, but to the personal histories of many American families.

But there is another reason why you should speak at Gettysburg this November 19. As many Presidents before you recognized, it is important that each generation pass along to the next the lessons and meaning of Gettysburg. Lincoln spoke eloquently about Gettysburg as a symbol of the birth, death, and re-birth of our nation. This November 19th, your presence at Gettysburg would remind our country that despite our differences, we Americans are bound together by a shared heritage, and a system of values far greater than any partisan squabbling over deficits, government shut-downs, or fiscal cliffs. It should pain all Americans, especially our youth, when they hear a small but vocal minority speak favorably today of secession. Because the thousands of young men laid in neat rows underneath Gettysburg's marble markers, who gave their last full measure of devotion, did so to prevent our country from ever being divided again.

If you speak, I hope the audience includes your daughters, my sons, and young people from all backgrounds and cultures who will treasure for the rest of their lives your words of inspiration and reconciliation. After all, what place is more fitting than Gettysburg for youth from different backgrounds to come together for reflection and remembrance, as exemplified by your girls -- the children of the first African American president in our history -- and my boys, the great-grandchildren of a Confederate soldier? Yes, my grandfather was from Virginia and fought under the Confederate flag. He took part in General Pickett's famous charge, and fell wounded not two hundred yards from where you will potentially stand.

I've read that you feel a special gratitude to President Lincoln, whose speeches and example inspired you to become the leader you are today. As someone from a family which long ago came to believe it was a blessing the South did not win the war, grateful instead that the Union victory reunited our country and abolished slavery, I hope you will come to Gettysburg. I hope you will come to Gettysburg and inspire our children. Inspire them to become leaders who will reconcile our differences, and build a better tomorrow based on the values and experiences we all share as Americans.

John McCormick and his sons William and Connor are the authors of "Dad, Tell Me A Story, How to Revive the Tradition of Storytelling with Your Children." The second edition of their book was released this month by Nicasio Press. For more information about family storytelling and their book, visit the authors' website and blog.

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