For an entire week (of gorgeous weather) in late June, I came down with some kind of flu-like sickness and was more or less apartment-bound. How better to spend that week than by watching the full Ken Burns Civil War series? I often feel like I don’t know enough about the Civil War. How can anyone when there are people who devote entire lifetimes to studying one particular battle or one specific figure? So I decided that this would be a mini refresher course and, hopefully, a way to add to my knowledge of the war. I have to say: despite some considerable qualms I have with the series (I’ll spare you for now), it was well worth the watch. It was informative, emotional (who can ever hear Ashokan Farewell without tearing up and thinking of the war that was “fought in ten thousand places”?), and it had a good degree of detail where it was most needed. It placed the war and its battles and figures into a larger context that should help any non-Civil War specialist feel more competent in his or her ability to think about and discuss the war. It also gave me ideas of what aspect of the war I wanted to study next. Of course Whitman’s Memoranda of the War was at the top of my list. I listened to it as an audiobook on my commutes, and it only got me more interested in the war. There were a few other small forays into small topics, but then I turned my attention to Gettysburg, and I planned all summer to go for a visit. Well, after reading a lot of books and listening to a lot of podcasts about Gettysburg, I took the trip as a birthday treat to myself in mid-August.
Gettysburg is about a four hour drive from NYC, which gave plenty of time for listening to even more podcasts and audiobooks. I ended up camping at Artillery Ridge Campground right on the outskirts of the park, which was good because I got in late in the day and was close enough to make a quick visit to Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, and the Wheatfield. And just before a downpour, I went on a twilight run through the southern part of the park that was one of those magical runs I know I’ll remember for a long time to come. Here’s a picture of the confused evening sky before the sudden torrent:
It was a long, hot, 36 hour visit, and I did a lot in that time- from ranger-led tours to the Cyclorama, from visiting the museum to trying to walk the entire park, from a self-guided car tour to reading Lincoln’s speeches beneath a tree at the “Angle.” Of all parts of the visit, I think I’ll remember three the most: the monuments, the tourist merchandise on sale in town, and walking from Cemetery Ridge to Seminary Ridge and back.
First: the monuments. When I first got in, I stopped at the first monument I saw and read it. Such & Such Brigade, Such & Such Division, Such & Such Corps. On the First Day, Did X; Second Day, Y; Third Day, Z. I tried to fit that into my understanding of what happened, and I tried to remember it. Cool! Then I stopped at the next monument (ten yards away) and read it. Such & Such Brigade, Such & Such Division, Such & Such Corps. On the First Day, Did X; Second Day, Y; Third Day, Z. Okay. I’ll remember that, too. After a few more minutes of monument reading and after a glance up the road, I realized that this method would be impossible to sustain. There were too many monuments. I remember at one point standing in the valley to the west of Little Round Top and looking at the dozens and dozens of monuments around me and thinking how utterly strange and unnatural it looked, monuments beside trees, monuments on hillsides, monuments on rocks, monuments in the grass, monuments practically on top of monuments. According to the National Park Service, there are 1,328 monuments, markers, and memorials at Gettysburg National Park. That surreal figure is hard to imagine if you haven’t been there. At times, the monuments were definitely distracting, and there were even moments when I felt that their overwhelming presence was somewhat irreverent. And yet there were other times, like standing alone on the southern slopes of Little Round Top in the early evening quiet, reading and reflecting on the markers and monuments of the 20th Maine, when they created a sense of grave and spiritual importance. Still, at the end of my first day (really just a few hours), I felt a strange feeling of discomfort- partially because the monuments reminded me of passing the hundreds of billboards along the interstate in Florida, partially because of the intensely conservative (and yet recently all too familiar) merchandise on sale in the town itself, and partially because of the social/political conversations I overheard at this site- a site marking a fractured American society that turned against itself in the most destructive way. I thought how strange it was that the park was there to remind us of the dangers inherent in this sort of division and rancor, and yet a century and a half later the lessons are lost on so many of us. As somebody who studies early and nineteenth-century American history, the phrase “American experiment” has become increasingly meaningful to me as I’ve continued to realize that nothing about the early United States was promised or guaranteed. This sort of exercise in self-rule had not been attempted in modern western society. It was a delicate invention, and the world didn’t know if it would prove managable, durable, and successful. The world was watching, and if America failed, the very idea of democracy anywhere in the world risked endangerment. I don’t know that the current station of American democracy in the world is so very different.
Back to Gettysburg: Day 2, I woke up early, refreshed, and excited for a full day on the grounds. I’ll skip through most of what I did and focus on my walk from Cemetery Ridge (the Union line) to Seminary Ridge (the Confederate line) and back. In the blazing heat of the early afternoon, I had been on a tour with a fantastic Park Ranger. I forgot his name but below is a picture of him leading the tour- I’ve been on a lot of tours in a lot of places, and this young man is perhaps the best tour guide I’ve ever had, period. Knowledgable, enthusiastic, entertaining, and also able to discuss a very complicated battle in such a way that all of us hungry, sweating tourists were able to follow along easily and willingly.
Our tour ended at the “Angle,” a cluster of trees that played a role in Pickett’s fatal charge at Union lines. Looking west from the Angle, there is a road running north to south, some fencing along it (true to 1863), and otherwise nothing but a mostly flat (but here and there dipping and rising) field of crops stretching for about a mile to Seminary Ridge, a ridge also running north to south (parallel to Cemetery Ridge), covered mostly by trees, and, on July 3, 1863, the starting point of Pickett’s charge.
Here are two pictures looking toward Seminary Ridge from Cemetery Ridge and the Angle. After hearing so much about Pickett’s charge, in which, trying to cross the field before me, over a thousand Confederates died in under an hour and total losses exceeded 6000, and after seeing that this part of the park was virtually unvisited by tourists, I felt some sort of obligation to walk the mile across the field and the mile back. Trudging along in the intense mid-day heat along a dirth path that cut across the farmland, I was surprised at the lack of insect noise around me. In fact, there was hardly any noise, except when an occasional breeze rustled the leaves of the low plants around me. I remembered, when visiting Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the powerful physical and emotional effect that the undulating buzz of the insects had on me: in the midst of all that sorrow, at an epicenter of human loss and sorrow, all was not lost, because the insects still buzzed. Here, in Gettysburg, there was no buzzing, no chirping, no singing. Just the August heat and my dogged footsteps in the baking Pennsylvania soil where so many people died 156 years ago, now forgotten. There were, however, a few puddles here and there where large groups of small, bright blue moths gathered and clung to the moisture and lifted and scattered suddenly when I passed by. Their color seemed out of place in the field, and I was glad for it.
I’ll leave things there for now. See you in September.