Unique opportunity presents itself to have the battlefield of Pickett’s Charge all to myself
It should come as no surprise to anyone that knows me – or anyone that reads the Diversions section each week – that Gettysburg has become a special place to me.
We’ve made several trips to Adams County over the course of the last two years – some with our kids who are developing their own interest – and some without them.
I learned the big picture of the battle long ago when I went with my parents so when when we go now, I try to focus on the part of the field I’ve most recently been studying or reading about.
Back in June, that meant quite a bit of time on the north end of the field at Culp’s Hill as I had been writing about Warren-native Capt. William Alexander.
When we went back in November, I had recently finished reading a book on Union General Daniel Sickles so I wanted to focus the time I spent on the battlefield in the areas of the Peach Orchard along the Emmitsburg back through the Wheatfield toward Devil’s Den.
I’m sure it would be easy to become lost in the minutiae.
But the opposite is true.
The more I drill down from the army and corps level to the brigade and regimental level, the more fascinated I become because the experience of the common foot soldier is what makes the ground hallowed.
Depending on the year, one million people visit Gettysburg annually.
In the summer, there are at least a dozen Ranger programs that run throughout the day in addition to a regiment of licensed battlefield guides that offer tours to smaller groups or individuals.
There are a few places on the field that people seem to congregate – and for very good reasons.
The Angle at the apex of Pickett’s Charge. Little Round Top. Devil’s Den. The Pennsylvania Memorial. Soldiers National Cemetery.
Of the roughly 9.5 square miles that make up the Gettysburg National Military Park, those are the places you will find the crowds.
I’m involved with a few Facebook pages of like-minded folks and one person recently posed the question – “Have you ever been on a battlefield and been completely alone?”
That’s easy to do at Gettysburg.
But not at those places that draw the crowds…
We went down last November for the Gettysburg Battlefield Marathon (another of the crazy things I do for fun).
I was in the best marathon shape I’ve been in but hadn’t really been feeling up to the challenge that a marathon inherently is in the days before the race.
I wasn’t even feeling it the morning of.
Our hotel was close enough to the start line that I knew I was going to walk.
It had been raining all night.
And I knew it was going to rain all day (which didn’t improve my lack of enthusiasm).
Like any other race day, I was up and ready to go much sooner than I needed to be so I knew I had some time to take a walk up toward the Union lines in the specific location where the famed Pickett/Pettigrew assault reached its apex.
As I walk up the ridge, I was checking out markers and monuments in detail that isn’t really possible to do with young children in tow.
And then it hit me.
I had the apex of Pickett’s Charge all to myself.
There weren’t any tour buses or park rangers.
There wasn’t anyone at all.
It was still raining and foggy… enough that I couldn’t see across the ridge to where the Confederate attack would have launched.
The fog hung in the valley like I imagine the battle smoke hung in the valley during the cannonade and while the two armies blazed away at each other on July 3, 1863.
But I wasn’t really thinking about the battle.
I was thinking about the day after.
As it did after most major battles, the day following Pickett’s Charge brought a heavy rain.
So I was drawn to what the field must have been like the day after.
I could see military accoutrements spread all over the ground.
I could see the Confederate killed who had yet to be moved from the field laying where they fell, with each body marking how far across the valley that man made it before their life was snuffed out.
I could hear the groans and see the terror of the Confederate wounded who would have remained on the field overnight.
I could see the Union lines and watch a great army awake and come to the realization that they had – for the first time – won a clear and convincing victory.
I think it’s good for the soul to stand in places where great things happened.
For a place like Gettysburg, the lessons are many and the lessons are varied but I believe that spending time on the battlefield, studying what happened, learning about the men who were involved and what they had to say can offer us a unique view on what it means to be an American.
But beyond any national or political allegiance, the stories of the men who fought in the Civil War clue us in to the best and sometimes the worst of humanity.
And it’s a complicate legacy – commitment to a cause, dedication to comrades, sacrifice in the face of great odds juxtaposed against views of slavery and racism.
I’ll leave the final word to one who writes better than myself – Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.
A college professor from Maine, Chamberlain offered his service to the country to preserve the union, was influential in repulsing Confederate attacks at Gettysburg and was one of few citizen soldiers to rise to the rank of brigadier general.
He returned to Gettysburg in 1888 to speak at a dedication ceremony for his regiment’s monument.
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls. This is the great reward of service. To live, far out and on, in the life of others; this is the mystery of the Christ, to give life’s best for such high sake that it shall be found again unto life eternal.”