Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Gettysburg

So, Gettysburg.

We'd been talking to Andy and Shiloh about how we needed to go while we're all in the east. Andy's a bit of a history buff (wouldn't you love to be a buff at something?), and it would be criminal to have lived here for all this time and not visited.

Shiloh was a great motivating factor, because you can't procrastinate too long around her. She's on a bit of a time table, so, we decided if we were going to do it, we had to do it soon. Andy and Shiloh booked the campsite, James got the mini-van, and we headed out on a Friday morning in May.

We took the long way up, staying off the Jersey turnpike and drove instead through Lancaster, PA and all the lovely surrounding towns.

We were pretty committed to getting as much out of our trip as possible, and it turned out perfectly. I think it helps to adventure with like minded people; people who have similar objectives in a trip.

We all did some preliminary research, none of us more than Andy, who came ready with tons of great supplementary material. James read a book of Civil War ghost stories for campfire telling.

Gettysburg has a driving tour marked, and we bought an audio tour that we played in the van as we drove through. It goes in chronological order over the 3 days of battle, and gives information about each site. I suppose you can chose to get out or not, but we rambled around each site.

The reenactors kind of made the day. They shot the cannon, and James said he could feel the sound rattle up through his bones. Maybe it's kind of cheesy, but the sound contextualizes the stories we heard about Lee firing off 50 cannons at once at the Union. It sounds impressive, but once you hear that cannon fire, that idea becomes truly astonishing.

Andy did a great deal of research for our trip, but none so much as on the battles surrounding Little Roundtop, which took place on the 2nd (to the 3rd) day of fighting. The Union had secured Little Roundtop, and the Confederacy was in Devil's Den, a large rock formation below. After the battle the land in between these two locations was called the Valley of Death.

Do yourself a favor: if you ever get Andy cornered, ask him to tell you about Little Roundtop. It's worth hearing.


Most every state in the Union (at the time) has a monument in Gettysburg. This is the Pennsylvania monument. Unsurprisingly, it's the largest one there. You can climb to the top and get a view of the whole of the land.

All the Pennsylvania men who fought in the Civil War have their names inscribed on plaques that line the outside of the monument.

We had seen almost everything, and we were driving past the Gettysburg visitor's center, and wanted to stop in before it closed. Andy and I found ourselves sitting on some benches after we had all dispersed inside. Andy looked as tired as I felt. We talked about why we felt so exhausted, and I developed a theory. We came to Gettysburg, not to drive around and browse the gift shop, but to really try to understand the things that had happened here. It's a noble intention, but a lot happened there, and I think we were exhausted with the effort of giving every moment, every story and monument the attention and respect it deserved.

We left to finish the tour, and drove to the last site, the site of Pickett's charge, and the battle that ended the battle of Gettysburg. The park is well designed, and we had chosen a good audio tour to guide us through it. But there was also some magic in our timing.

The Union army was established where we stood, and the Confederacy advanced from the tree line across the field pictured here. Almost 3/4 of a mile. Shoulder to shoulder. James commented that when they started from the tree line the distance must have looked like forever. And for most it was. Unsurprisingly, a much smaller number of Confederate soldiers made it to the stone breast works (the low stone wall) the Union had built. But when they did they leapt over it with swords drawn.

As we were there, a storm gathered from behind the tree line. I don't joke when I say that I think we all felt a portion of the mighty weight of this place, and all that happened here, settle upon us. That's sounds negative, and dark, but it wasn't. It was quiet and grave, and truly illuminating.

3 comments:

  1. I wish you lived closer becasue it would be so cool to have you share all of that with my 5th graders. We are studying the Civil War right now. Amazing experience. Thanks for sharing.

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