My first time at Gettysburg was a quick day trip in 90 degrees of heat and humidity, left hand in a cast, on my way to somewhere else. I hadn’t really known what to expect of the place. I was pretty thin on the history of the Civil War and of this battle in particular. One of my nephews had been big on Civil War dioramas in his youth, and, honestly, that was my only reason for stopping by. I figured I’d snap a few pics to text to him, get a postcard or two.
After two hours that day, I realized I needed to give this place way more time and respect in order to understand the magnitude of the battle fought here, the thousands of soldiers who died here, and the lasting impact it had on the Civil War.
Last summer, it was time to go back to Gettysburg. Over the winter, I had read Killer Angels, a novel based on the real generals, soldiers, and events of Gettysburg. By the end of the book, the horror of cannonballs flying into formations of foot soldiers and the reality of hand-to-hand combat when bullets ran out had made the battles at Gettysburg real to me in a way my US history classes never had.
I arrived early this time, trying to beat the summer heat, which also meant I beat most of the crowds. Not many people actually walk the battlefield line, as it turns out, and with good reason: I was a sweaty mess after 90 minutes, but I also had a vivid sense of exactly how long the Union line was, from The Angle on the north end down to Round Top at the south end.
The two monuments on far right and far left show the Union line just below The Angle. That white dot in the distance, about 1/4 of the way from the right edge, is the Virginia monument, and it marks the center of the Confederate line. Now imagine all the space between that white dot and the two Union monuments filled with foot soldiers, officers on horseback, cannonballs flying from both sides, and the noise and smoke of battle. More than 160,000 soldiers fought at Gettysburg, the large majority of them right here.
From the flat open plain of the main battlefield, I headed south to Round Top. The image below is looking across the battle plain towards Round on the left.
The drive goes through forested land filled with monuments to fallen soldiers, Union and Confederate. Slowly following the winding road gave me plenty of time to think how hellish the fighting must have been: thickly forested hills and valleys, rocky ground and huge boulders, and an ever-changing, ever-charging line of battle.
From Round Top, the southern end of the fighting, I looped around to the Confederate line, looking across that same battlefield from the other side. It looks like a beautiful summer’s day in this image, but the monuments that line the sides of the road never let me forget for a moment what happened here across three days in July, 1863.
I went back again late in the day, when most of the tourists had long since headed back to RVs or hotel rooms and silence had descended on the fields. I could almost feel ghosts on the wind. I stood there for a long time, feeling the soft breeze and watching the clouds as twilight slid slowly across the sky.
I thought of how much things haven’t changed. Confederate flags still fly, statues of Lee and monuments to Confederate soldiers stand in places of honor at state capitols and small towns across the South. Divisions of race and class, immigrants and natives, obscenely rich and the desperately poor: we’re in the middle of a war, it seems, just not on a battlefield with cannonballs and muskets. How will it go? Where will it end? And what kind of country will America be then?
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.