A business trip took me to Pennsylvania this past fall and I was able to also make a couple of personal side-trips. One was to see Gettysburg, which was entirely unplanned, and one was to Columbia County, which I planned in advance. Our meetings ended early one day and rather than go to Hersheypark with the others, I decided on an afternoon at Gettysburg.
I drove my lovely rented Toyota the 45-minutes or so to Gettysburg and noticed that the entire Keystone State seemed to consist of the politest drivers ever. They didn't merge well, but they merged extremely nicely. They also seemed to have an extraordinarily large number of road-kill; apparently the niceness did not extend to all creatures great and small. Other than this, my drive was uneventful. I parked and walked in as if I were walking into the greatest church of all time. I have never felt so reverant. I went to the Information Desk and interrupted a man working there. And by “working,” I mean he was reading.
It was relatively late in the day and I'm nearly certain he just wanted to read his way into quitting time. But here was a dumb Californian thinking she can see it all in a couple of hours. I explained my predicament and that I only had until dark and couldn't likely ever come back. What does he think I can see? He gave me a map and quickly circled the standards as if by rote and tried to return to his book. I then noticed that book. A book on the Battle of Stones River. That's where I really wish I were, I told him, pointing at the book. My 3rd great grandfather, who was born here in Pennsylvania, fought in that battle, I told him. I mentioned he was transferred to the Pioneer Corps from the 16th Illinois two days after (I pointed to the book). I wasn't at Stones River, but I was here so...
Then it all changed. He took back the generic map he'd made. See this, he said. And this. Go see this, and this, and this. The cemetery is boring, but you'll go there last and see it. But see these three.
So I did.
Gettysburg. I was nearly the only one there that afternoon. One or two other parties at most. I was able to FEEL the places, not just see and click photos. I was able to feel them in 2015 as me, and imagine the feel of them back then. And even before.
I think what was so amazing was how normal it was. It wasn't battle place. It was a place. That had a battle. Normal farmland like you'd see anywhere and the only spectacular thing was that this peaceful place was famous for war.
I suppose this isn't news to anyone. It truly wasn't to me in my head. But for 47 years I've seen Gettysburg in movies and on television and it's been a battle place. I see the staged re-enactments and it seems... staged. A place made for battle and set up to house the diagrams of the battles they illustrate with arrows and dotted lines and little x marks all over.
But looking out over where Pickett's Charge featured 7,000 Union soldiers descended on by 12,000 of Lee's men, what I saw were farms. Regular ol' farms. Quiet, peaceful farms that grew things and made things and housed things. Not a place set up for a battle, but a place where battle just sort of happened.
As I stood there looking out at the stone walls designating where the soldiers met, I imagined how the quiet I was hearing-- just the locusts and birds hopping around the brush for them-- would have been what the farmers were used to, some of them for generations. And suddenly, there would be Union troops and the Rebel Yell. And cannons and gunfire. And after three days, it'd be silent again with the birds once again hunting their locusts. But now, now it would all be different. Now the echoes of those troops, yells, cannons, and gun fires would be ghost sounds hanging in the air over Gettysburg for all to her. Forever.
One of my favorite sites was this:
It's the farmhouse of a local man named, Abraham Brien (also spelled Bryan and/or Brian). He was a free African-American widower with five children who purchased the 12-acre farm in 1857 when he married his third wife, Elizabeth. The Brien Farm grew wheat, barley and hay and had a small apple and peach orchard.
The small farmhouse with two rooms and a loft was the headquarters of General Alexander Hays’ Division of the Union 2nd Army Corps leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg and was on the front lines during the fighting on July 2 and July 3, 1863.
When the trouble was advancing, Mr. Brien took no chances and got his family out to town. During the battle, it was everything but demolished. When he returned home, he found it ransacked and his fences, crops, and orchards destroyed. The west field was now an enormous graveyard. He worked his farm, putting it back in order, until 1869, when he went to work in town at the local hotel. He petitioned for restitution of $1,028, but received only $15.
Alexander died in 1875 and is buried in Gettysburg with his first two wives. His children included Elizabeth, Matilda, William, and Frances.
Other sites I visited were the Pitzer Woods, Eternal Light Peace Memorial, and the High Water Mark:
From the brochure [link: http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org] (pictures are mine):
Pitzer Woods- In the afternoon of July 2, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet placed his Confederate troops along Warfield Ridge, anchoring the left of this line in these woods.
Eternal Light Peace Memorial- At 1 p.m. Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes’s Confederates attacked from this hill, threatening Union forces on McPherson and Oak ridges. Seventy- five years later, over 1,800 Civil War veterans helped dedicate this memorial to “Peace Eternal in a Nation United.”
High Water Mark- Late in the afternoon, after a two-hour cannonade, some 7,000 Union soldiers posted around the Copse of Trees, The Angle, and the Brian Barn, Repulsed the bulk of the 12,000-man “Pickett’s Charge” against the Federal center. This was the climactic moment of the battle. On July 4, Lee’s army began retreating. Total casualties (killed, wounded, captured, and missing) for the three days of fighting were 23,000 for the Union army and as
many as 28,000 for the Confederate army.
And, of course, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery- Gettysburg National Cemetery is one of 14 national cemeteries managed by the National Park Service and the final resting place for more than 3,500 Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg. Landscape architect William Saunders designed the cemetery as a wide semi-circle, radiating from a central point to be decorated with a grand monument. The cemetery’s sections were divided by state — smaller states closest to the monument and larger states along the outer radius. At the cemetery’s dedication on November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered “a few appropriate remarks” that would become known as the Gettysburg Address.
The Gettysburg Address. From http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org
Ever since Lincoln wrote it in 1864, this version has been the most often reproduced, notably on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. It is named after Colonel Alexander Bliss, stepson of historian George Bancroft. Bancroft asked President Lincoln for a copy to use as a fundraiser for soldiers (see "Bancroft Copy" below). However, because Lincoln wrote on both sides of the paper, the speech could not be reprinted, so Lincoln made another copy at Bliss's request. It is the last known copy written by Lincoln and the only one signed and dated by him. Today it is on display at the Lincoln Room of the White House.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not 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. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
November 19, 1863
November 19, 1863