By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
MANKATO — Joshua Kloster is preparing for his finest hour as Abraham Lincoln.
The tall, square-jawed 19-year-old who is a business administration student at Bethany Lutheran College is also a seasoned veteran in Lincoln’s Traveling Troupe, the volunteer company of mostly youth actors and actresses that performs the historical manuscripts written by area Lincoln enthusiast and reenactor Bryce Stenzel.
In past productions, Kloster has portrayed a teenage Abraham Lincoln as well as a Lincoln on the occasion of his presidential nomination. He’s played a Lincoln beset with anxiety as the nation plunges further into Civil War even as the U.S.-Dakota War is breaking out in Minnesota, and he’s played a Lincoln deeply concerned with the South’s recovery as he unwittingly neared the end of his presidency.
Now, in the latest of Stenzel’s Lincoln-related plays — “... We Are Met on a Great Battlefield of the War ...,” which explores the significance of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address in the year of its 150th anniversary — Kloster will play Lincoln during what is perhaps the 16th president’s most iconic moment.
“I’ve played Lincoln about six times,” Kloster said. But when asked if his wealth of previous experience would make it easy to recite one of the most powerful and significant speeches in American history, he replied modestly: “Not quite.”
Even a century and a half after its utterance, the Gettysburg Address continues to astound observers both for its brevity — at 272 words, Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes during the battlefield commemoration ceremony on Nov. 19, 1863 — and its clarity.
In what Stenzel considers the philosophical endpoint to the articulation of the American ideal that began with the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln underscored the argument for human equality while also defining the Civil War as a fight to preserve democracy.
In his meticulously researched and densely detailed manuscript, Stenzel portrays a resolute Lincoln firmly aware of the social and historical significance of his speech.
To illustrate the point, Stenzel includes a conversation between Lincoln and his wife where she begs him not to go on account of Tad’s illness. Stenzel also includes a conversation between Lincoln and his secretary, John Hay, in which the president dismisses any offense to the fact that he was not chosen as the keynote speaker for the ceremony (a distinction that belonged to Edward Everett).
“For Lincoln, the cemetery dedication ceremony was more than an obligation,” Stenzel said. “It was an opportunity for him to explain to the American people why the Civil War was being fought at all, and why it must continue until the Union prevailed — no matter what the cost.”
To understand the importance of the Gettysburg Address, however, Stenzel also illustrates its the costs on the battlefield.
Much of the play focuses on various war accounts that Stenzel chose specifically to give a representative cross-section of the population.
He includes accounts from the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment, whose heroic deeds at Gettysburg have earned it a battlefield monument, as well as accounts from drummer boys, women and townsfolk.
He includes the story of Jennie Wade, who was killed while baking bread and was the only civilian casualty from Gettysburg, and Charlie Coulson, a Union drummer boy who refused anesthetic for his amputations and instead trusted his pain to God.
Stenzel also weaves unflattering accounts of soldiers — ransacking dead bodies on the battlefield, friendly fire killings — with moments that underscore the unlikely humanity of war. In one of the play’s most symbolic scenes, Lincoln insists on shaking the hand of a Confederate soldier during a visit to a field hospital.
“When Lincoln said, ‘with malice toward none,’ he meant it,” said Stenzel, referencing the oft-quoted line from Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “He walked the walk as well as talked the talk.”