On the evening of March 24, 1921, the residents of Gettysburg anxiously awaited the arrival of a train that was headed west. Nearly sixty years before, they had awaited an incoming train that was carrying President Abraham Lincoln, who was coming to the town to speak at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery. Now, once again, a train was bound for Gettysburg with an important mission that was directly related to the hallowed ground on Cemetery Hill. Unlike Lincoln’s train in 1863, however, this train in March 1921 was a funeral train. It was carrying the remains of the first man from Adams County, Pennsylvania, to die during “the war to end all wars.”
Born on October 11, 1892 (his exact birthdate is disputed, but according to census records, he was born in 1892), on a farm west of Gettysburg, Albert Lentz spent his early years in and around the town of Gettysburg. His parents, Israel and Susannah Lentz, moved into the town when Albert was young, living at several locations, one of which was near the building used by Robert E. Lee as his headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg. Lentz attended public school in Gettysburg, and when he was old enough, he began working in the town, both at the Gettysburg Rolling Mills and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. In 1910, according to census records, Albert was one of seven children living with Israel and Susannah, the oldest being twenty-two and the youngest being three. In 1914, at the age of twenty-one, Lentz left Gettysburg, setting out for new surroundings in Columbus, Ohio. There, he found employment as a chauffeur. He remained in Columbus until enlisting in the army in 1917, a pivotal year in American history.
That year, the United States emerged on the international stage in a bold fashion, establishing itself among the great world powers by entering into the First World War. While the Great War, as it was then known, had been raging for three years already, President Woodrow Wilson had held the United States out of the fighting thus far, using the phrase “He kept us out of war” as a campaign slogan in the 1916 presidential election. However, German U Boats were threatening the safety of American shipping on the seas of the Atlantic, placing American lives at peril. With the war’s scope growing ever larger, Wilson went to Congress and asked for a Declaration of War. Wilson described the German submarine attacks in the Atlantic as “warfare against mankind.” The president stated that the war in Europe was being waged “for the rights of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience.” In perhaps the most quoted line that Wilson delivered as president, he declared that the war must be waged so that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” In so doing, Wilson was not espousing the same idea of democracy hailed by Lincoln, that all men are created equal, but rather his own interpretation of Lincoln’s democratic ideal, a government of, by, and for whites. When Congress declared war, all across the land thousands joined the army in preparation for what they imagined would be a grand adventure in Europe.
By 1918, Private Albert Lentz was in France, serving with the Headquarters Company of the 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Force. Lentz’s actions in France are not fully known today, but in all likelihood, he had been in the country and in service against the enemy for at least one month before April 27, 1918, when he was struck and killed immediately by an incoming artillery shell near the French village of Cantigny. Lentz was twenty-five years old at the time of his death. His body was initially buried in a cemetery in France, and several years later, efforts were made to bring his body home, where he was to be buried in the Soldier’s National Cemetery in his hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
On March 24, 1921, the Gettysburg Times ran a front page story discussing the return home of Private Lentz, noting that the American Legion post in town, which was named after Lentz following his death in France, was working to coordinate the funeral for the first soldier from Adams County to have died during the Great War. Initially, plans were to hold the funeral in the cemetery on Sunday, April 3. Because cemetery regulations prohibited funerals on Sundays, a letter was sent asking for special permission to hold the funeral on the Sabbath.
“The body of Albert J. Lentz, the first soldier from this county killed in France and the man after whom our post is named, has arrived in Gettysburg. His funeral will be an unusually large affair. We desire to bury him in the National Cemetery Sunday, April 3, and hereby request your permission which is necessary. Please notify us of your decision immediately.”
Perhaps this request was denied, or perhaps it was another reason entirely, but the funeral was not held on Sunday April 3, but rather on Monday April 4 in the town of Gettysburg.
According to the Gettysburg Times, there were over 3,500 people in attendance at the funeral. The local American Legion post had publicly invited all veterans and citizens of Adams County to come and pay their respects to Private Lentz. The events that day began at the Baltimore Street funeral home of H.B. Bender, where the hearse bearing Lentz’s remains was waiting. The procession then made its way to the town square, where the funeral ceremonies were held. The coffin was placed next to the speaker’s platform, where an opening prayer was delivered, followed by the singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
The main oration that day was delivered by Reverend Harry Daniels. The Gettysburg Times recorded what the Reverend said and reproduced his speech the following day. Certainly, the rhetoric of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address had a very strong bearing upon the Reverend. He used the same powerful words in his remarks that day.
“If men are not willing to die for their country, they will soon have a country that is not worth dying for.
Albert J. Lentz was one of those who flung his body between civilization and German deviltry that liberty might not perish. Where did Albert Lentz get the inspiration to support him in the trench life, when wading through Flanders mud, when drenched with rain, when making dangerous raids through No Man’s Land? I think you will agree with me that he got part of it in the public school while singing the national air we have sung tonight:
‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee
Sweet Land of Liberty of Thee I sing
Land Where My Fathers Died
Land of the Pilgrims’ Pride
From Every Mountain Side let Freedom Ring’
I think he got some of it from the fact that here in his home town freedom and liberty were saved to the world. We will lay this body within a short distance of the Bloody Angle, where Rebel and Yankee struggled for supremacy and where the backbone of the Confederacy was broken and the world made safe for freemen.
Albert Lentz is not dead; it is true his body lies here before us, but Albert Lentz was never more alive than now. Though we bury this body, his soul goes marching on, and from the manner of his death, his comrades will take increased devotion to their country. These boys and girls will be inspired with the spirit of Albert Lentz and we will all highly resolve to be more worthy of the government and land for which he died.
To you, his father, I would say, you have not lost a son, but you have given him to posterity. You can cheer your hearts as you look upon these remains by quoting the poet;
Thou art Freedom’s now and Fame’s,
One of the few in mortal names,
That were not born to die.
The birds will sing above his remains, the flowers bloom above him, the grass grow green; these will speak to us of the sweetness of his influence, the fragrance of his life and the immortality of his memory.”
Upon the conclusion of the remarks and events in the town square, Lentz’s casket was placed back into his hearse, and the procession made its way from the square to the cemetery, just as Lincoln had done on November 19, 1863. The procession entered the cemetery from the Baltimore Street entrance, coming to a halt at the site of Private Lentz’s grave. With the crowd gathered, a commitment service was held. At its conclusion, a 21 gun salute was fired and taps was played. As the procession left the cemetery that day, the Gettysburg Citizens Band serenaded the crowd with the sounds of “Onward Christian Soldiers”
As the remarks given that day by Reverend Daniels suggest, Private Albert Lentz’s life was shaped by his hometown of Gettysburg and the history which had occurred there. From the cradle to his eventual grave on Cemetery Hill, Lentz was surrounded by the legacy of Gettysburg and its lasting impact on history. In the context of his life and death, Private Albert Lentz provides a salient example of the sacrifices which Americans have made throughout the years to answer President Lincoln’s call to carry forward “the great task remaining before us.” Indeed, Private Lentz was born in the shadow of Gettysburg, the battle where, as Reverend Daniels proclaimed, “the world was made safe for freemen.” In 1917, with the United States entering into the First World War, Lentz heeded the words of President Wilson, who linked the causes at stake in 1917 to his own interpretation of Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg in 1863. As Wilson declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Because of the Union victory at Gettysburg in 1863 and the “new birth of freedom” which it helped to bring about, the democracy which Lentz fought to support in France in 1918 was the same “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” which Abraham Lincoln had spoken of in Lentz’s hometown two score and fifteen years before.
Ranger Daniel Vermilya, Gettysburg National Military Park