I cannot believe that little over a week ago I was standing on the Gettysburg Battlefield, feeling overwhelmed by all the markers and monuments, struggling to align the layout of the land before me with the battle scenes I'd seen portrayed in a movie starring Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels. 150 years after the defeat of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at that site during the Civil War, my family and I were looking across hallowed ground. The only thing that was lacking was the presence of Dad. Both my sister Vinca and I had looked forward to Dad being there. I cried bitterly when I found out he couldn't come. A great admirer of Robert E. Lee and hugely knowledgeable about that war, he would have had no problem seeing the events of those early July days of 1863 play out in his mind's eye against the backdrop.
Thanks to Vinca and my brother-in-law Dave, also a Civil War buff, and to my forbearing husband Matthew, the children and I got to be there for the 150th anniversary. I had dreamed about it, never thinking it would happen. Considering that I kept all the adults, and the dog, up late the night before with my typical once-a-month-crazy blowout, and that we spent eight hours walking D.C. just two days earlier, it's a miracle it came to pass.
Blurry-eyed and irritable in the morning, lugging food for an army - albeit a pampered one, we herded seven children into two vehicles later than hoped and made the drive to Pennsylvania from where? Northern Virginia. Three hours later, we ate our picnic lunch in the parking lot and hiked up to the Visitor's Center.
Now please understand: my youngest child, Danny, believes he is still a baby AND my indispensable third arm. So....failing to bring a stroller from Arizona to my sis' home and having learnt a painful lesson from hauling my miraculous appendage around in D.C., Vinca and I negotiated with a park ranger to haul my whining preschooler around in a wheelchair. Being a true gentleman, he was open to our strange plan as long as one of us rode with him (yeah!). I just had to leave my driver's license as collateral to prevent my wild retreat from the Center with the chair as loot. As I was making sure of the terms of what the friendly park ranger called a "red-neck solution, ma'am", my man walked up and squashed the transaction, calling it ridiculous. I groaned.
The park ranger asked my husband, "Which one is yours? Which ones are yours?" pointing between me and Vinca and our entourage of children.
"Do I have to claim any of them?" responded Matthew, and the ranger, Vinca and I just laughed it up, seeing the wisdom of that reply. Ah, love and family!
Disappointed but determined and deciding to come back to the Museum later, we hiked a trail through beautiful greenery to Cemetery Ridge, the Union position. The smell of honeysuckle accosted us, and my nephew PJ and I were just about to snag some and suck the juice out when Dave reminded us that we could be fined a few hundred bucks for messing around with nature in a National Park. Damn! It was like my childhood was floating on the air, teasing me. Even the little purple flowers by the path reminded me of my home in Tennessee. But soon we were out of the trees and crossing a busy road and the memorials began to spring up everywhere.
Everyone has the moment when it hits them, just where they are, just what happened there. My moment came on Cemetery Ridge after trying but mostly failing to interpret the signs about Confederate and Union positions and encounters. I began to wander behind my brother Dave amid the cannon, and he pointed this out to me:
It's a memorial to mark where Confederate General Lewis Armistead fell on July 3rd. Part of Pickett's charge, his brigade got farther than any other into Union lines. Before the war he had been great friends with Union General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was also at Gettysburg. Both were wounded. Armistead died.
We had to return to the car, make the good hike back down, because you can't walk the whole park in one day. If you're like me, you'd like to try, and if you could, you would read each and every monument, memorial and marker along the way. But your friends and family would probably desert you, and you'd have to break federal rules and live off National Park land for a week or so.
In the car we stopped first at the Pennsylvania Monument. It is gorgeous and enormous:
I thought I lost most of my kids there, because I lost my head and didn't keep track of them. Berto was filming and narrating the sights on the camera for his Paca (my dad), and it turns out my man had taken the younger ones up the precarious, tightly winding stairs to the top as I bellowed for my family all around statues of Lincoln and Union generals. We finally reunited, and I took my turn up to the parapet. Here's one of the views of the battlefield from the top:
Later as we all made pilgrimages to and from the restrooms, I caught my nephew PJ drawing a scale model of the monument. I was amazed! It was beautifully detailed and to my eyes looked perfect. I wanted to ask him if I could have it, but it seemed wrong to covet his hard work. Still, if he felt like giving me such a thing for Christmas, I wouldn't say no. I'd frame it for my home and point out his signature to visitors.
We later made a stop at the farm of a free black man whose fences and other property were dismantled by federal forces to use for defenses. He filed for damages in excess of $1,000. He was compensated 10 bucks or so - a lucky one. Most farmers got nothing in compensation from the government.
Here are some of the many monuments to bravery and sacrifice on the Union side of the enormous field:
|Major General George Meade|
We drove through the still small town of Gettysburg to get to the Confederate side. And this is where Matthew and Dave had their moments.
You drive down a paved road through pretty, serene landscape. It is so quiet, the gentle whisper of the leaves so peaceful, it is hard to imagine anxious men waiting beneath those trees to march toward their fate.
When we got out of the cars to wander and found ourselves staring back over the field to Cemetery Ridge and all the Union monuments, Matthew said, "It just hit me. This is eerie."
I waited a while beside the Volunteer State's monument for my sister so that we, a couple gals raised in the green hills of Tennessee, could pose by it:
Here are a couple others, each to commemorate the actions and loss of men in those days of July 1863:
Finally, we drove up the road to the one monument you can see clearly from Cemetery Ridge, and my brother Dave had his moment. Only he did what none of the rest of us had thought to do: he called Dad to tell him where he was and to share the moment before the memorial to General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia:
Just down a trail from it is the spot where Lee rode before his weary men after their defeat and declared, "It is all my fault."
Afterward, we passed marker after marker, out of time, and I wished I could have spent a moment - or several minutes - with each of them. I tried to read the state's names and the general's positions as we headed up the hill to Little Round Top where brutal fighting took place, where the 20th Maine under Col. Chamberlain held their ground at all costs, becoming instrumental in the Union victory:
Then we realized Vinca had left her backpack somewhere, and I was shocked, because I'm supposed to do stuff like that. Still, it was my fault; she forgot it while posing with me in front of Tennessee's memorial.
While the men went looking for it, Vinca and I took the kids to the Museum. I had several moments there, mostly angry, irritated ones, because I was trying to look at every single object and read every single placard, but my five-year-old was scared by the dim lighting, images and weaponry. The museum zig-zagged forever, each new corner bringing something you know you can't leave without seeing - even if you're child is telling you how she hates it.
But Vinca in that museum still managed to have her moment. I found her in tears after coming back from scouting a restroom for my five-year-old. I thought my kids had really done it then! I tried to pry what was wrong from her, but Vinca just wanted everyone to leave her alone for a bit.
Later she told me about it. She found a display in which there was a small personal Bible. An infantry soldier had it in his pocket during the battle, and a bullet or shattered shell went plum through it, leaving a gaping hole. The soldier died, and the museum had the Bible along with many of his personal effects on display. It suddenly hit her, she said, the sheer number of deaths and the ramifications of that immense loss of life.
A wise man, one who many of us greatly admire, gave a speech at Gettysburg after the battle. Abraham Lincoln said it was far beyond our ability to hallow that ground. The men who died there did that. All those monuments and memorials we had the great privilege to see, though beautiful and appropriate, don't add to what those men did 150 years ago, but hopefully they make us ponder their sacrifice and heighten our appreciation for the sacrifice of every single man and woman in service since.
That's what it is all about. We should all be blessed with moments.
If you ever visit Gettysburg, plan to spend a couple days. It is far bigger than you think it is. Camp in the campgrounds nearby or stay in the town after all the anniversary crowds have cleared. I plan on a backpacking trip through it myself someday, reading every single little marker throughout. Anyone want to come along? Matthew? Vinca? Dave? Kids? Anybody? :-)