Fourscore and three years ago, The American Legion began a solemn tradition of honoring Abraham Lincoln. On Feb. 12, I will have the privilege of visiting Springfield, Ill., and placing a wreath at the tomb of our 16th president during observances of his birthday.
The observances coincide with the 84th Annual National American Legion Pilgrimage to the Tomb of Abraham Lincoln, a tradition started in 1935 by Post 32 in Illinois’ capital city.
Remarkably, the pilgrimage has had only four chairmen: World War I veteran Herbert Tragethon; World War II veteran Noel “Whitey” Moore; Vietnam War veteran Michael Walton, who coordinated the event for 35 years, until 2012; and current chairman Tony Libri, a veteran of Bosnia, Panama and Afghanistan.
Libri believes the pilgrimage is the longest-running celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in the nation. “We do this to bring attention to one of America’s greatest presidents, and since it’s his hometown, we want to honor his birth,” he says.
Though Lincoln died a half-century before the founding of The American Legion, his second inaugural address anticipated the need for such an organization. “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan” is not just a promise to those who fought the Civil War. It is a pillar of The American Legion.
We know that the men and women in today’s armed forces fight for the country they love. Like the soldiers of Lincoln’s day, they bravely go into harm’s way knowing they might sacrifice life or limb in its defense.
It’s why The American Legion provides scholarships to the children of the fallen and severely wounded. It’s why Operation Comfort Warriors strives to meet the needs of wounded, injured or ill military personnel by providing items or recreational experiences not usually supplied by the government. It’s why the Legion has more than 3,000 accredited service officers, dedicated to helping veterans receive the benefits they have earned, free of charge and regardless of Legion membership.
As inspirational as his promise to veterans and their families remains today, another pledge Lincoln made at Gettysburg resonates, too: that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The American Legion Family understands all too well the sacrifices necessary for the survival of representative democracy.
We take Lincoln’s words seriously. We always have.
And so the pilgrimage to his tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery is far more than a wreath-laying ceremony. It’s a celebration of the life of the “Great Emancipator.” Legion Family members can receive discounted tickets to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield on Feb. 11 and 12. Other activities include an open house at Post 32, and an official breakfast and luncheon in downtown Springfield.
American Legion Auxiliary National President Diane Duscheck, Sons of The American Legion National Commander Danny Smith and I would be honored if you would join us in celebrating Lincoln’s legacy. To purchase meal tickets or obtain a schedule of events, go to www.springfieldamericanlegion.com or call (217) 523-3415.