I decided today to start writing an “Inexplicable List”. That is, a list of things that I have always felt a deep-seated connection to or fascination with for no apparent reason. One of these has always been with the American Civil War, specifically with the Battle of Gettysburg. Although battles (and, specifically, victories for the “good guys”) were of interest to a lot of boys when I was growing up, and to me as well, there was something about Gettysburg that was special to me, even when I knew almost nothing about it other than it supposedly changed the course of the war. It seemed I could never get enough of it, from one of the only real strategy games I played (with my friend John, whom I’ve spoken of here), to playing it as one of the VERY earliest computer games.
As I grew up, I remained fascinated with the battle, culminating in the poignant and beautiful way the battle was told in story, pictures and music in the stunning documentary “The Civil War” by Ken Burns. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s another thing to put on your Netflix list! Now before I saw this series, I always thought documentaries were BORING! But from the first moments of the first episode I knew this was something completely different. I laughed, I cried, I was mesmerized by the music, the stories, the reading of actual letters and diary entries. When they finally got to the part about the battle of Gettysburg, I felt like someone who hadn’t eaten all day placed in front of Thanksgiving Dinner. My mind was drooling. What an experience it was to find out the real details for the first time. The stories, the strategy, what went right, what went wrong, which moments were crucial, who excelled in heroism, who failed or missed their moment. All done to an amazing music accompanyment and such a brilliantly edited series of photos that it felt like I was watching a movie of it, even though movies would not be invented for many years. And all this served to do was make my inexplicable connection to Gettysburg exponentially stronger. I felt I wanted to go there. To see these places where ordinary men became heros, fought with passion and honor in the face of almost certain death, and where missed opportunities by the Confederate army gave the North the first sense that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was not some mythical, invincible horde.
But it was another 20 years before I was actually able to go there, and that was today. There were four other times I passed within about 30 miles of Gettysburg in the last 5 years, rolling by on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but, for whatever reason, I decided not to make the trip then. It was perfect. Today was the day! So I drove into town and went first to the Visitor’s Center. So far nothing looked like anything from what I had seen in pictures of the battle. I went up to the first Park Rangers I saw by a map of the area and spoke to one of the guys. He CLEARLY was used to talking to people who were visiting with no real knowledge of the battle, so when I told him that I had studied it and that Ken Burns’ documentary was my favorite of all time, he got very excited. I am chuckling to myself right now as I remember that he looked at me like I was crazy when I told him I didn’t want to do the whole “CD Tour” and that I basically just wanted to go to where Pickett’s Charge began and stand and see what the Confederate soldiers saw and touch the ground where they stood. But we talked for a few more minutes about the key moments and some theories that he and another writer there had about Lee’s actual original objective of the battle that was waylaid by the actions of some of his other generals. Then he gave me a map and one last disbelieving look and I headed out.
I actually decided to go to two other places: Little Round Top, the hill where the turning point of Day 2 occurred, along with one of the wonderful heroic stories of the battle, that of Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine rushing to the Union left flank and barely holding off the Confederate charge up the hill, and the “High Water Mark” as it’s called. The place where Pickett’s Charge ended, and with it, the last, furthest Confederate advance into Northern territory.
So I followed my map around and as I started to approach the place where troops from Tennessee had stepped from their positions behind the rock wall and marched into history, I began to cry and had to pull over. I was so overwhelmed, so in awe. I walked through a passage in the wall and stepped out onto the field, looking across the wild grass and up to where the Union troops had been waiting. Mmmm. They were RIGHT HERE! On this same ground where I stood. There across the field were the names I knew from history. “The Copse of Trees”, which the Confederates used as a point of reference. “The Angle”–well I couldn’t SEE The Angle, but I knew it was there. Off to the right in the distance I could see Little Round Top and Big Round Top. All the things someone from the battle would have seen. And I could now FEEL why Abraham Lincoln used the words “Hallowed Ground” when speaking of Gettysburg. Probably much to the amusement of people being given a tour near me, I knelt down on the ground and put my hands in the grass. I could FEEL these men. They stood across an open field and walked straight into at least 10,000 Union soldiers supported by artillery. Why? Trust. I could FEEL their trust. Their officers, first and foremost at the very top with General Robert E. Lee, had led them to victory after victory, almost always in the face of far superior numbers and they just KNEW it would happen again that day. And their trust, their BELIEF overcame any minor hesitation they might have had over the direness of the actual circumstance.
I got back into my car and drove around to Little Round Top. I remember the look on the Ranger’s face when I asked, disbelieving: “You can DRIVE to the top of Little Round Top???” Yep. So I parked and walked the last 50 yards to the top of the hill. Once again the AWE just struck me. Little Round Top is a STEEP, ROCKY hill about 150 feet above the rest of the battlefield. It was UP this hill that Brig. General Evander Law’s troops repeatedly charged. I was overwhelmed by two things: first, the STUPIDITY of such an act. To charge UPHILL with no cover into the face of guns shooting from behind rock walls? And second, the BRAVERY of these men! On both sides! The Confederates actually reached that wall and breached it momentarily, until they were driven back, partially by an UNARMED bayonet charge by Chamberlain’s 20th Maine. I can’t remember if this was one of those times, but there were times during this war when soldiers from one side, in honor of the bravery of a charge by the other side, would CHEER them. They all wanted to win, but they recognized, and honored, the bravery of each other.
Finally I headed to the “High Water Mark”. The place where Pickett’s Charge ended, and, for all intents and purposes, any chance the South had of winning the war. I walked out across the top of the hill where the Union army had been, once again in shock. This was no real “hill”. It was a high point in the ridge, but not a major hill like I had always pictured it. Even so, with no protection and with their comrades being just shredded by fire from the Union line, a few Confederate soldiers managed to cross the 3/4 mile, unprotected field to reach this very point where I was standing. I knelt down and touched the EXACT SPOT where their feeling of the invincibility had ended, at least in that moment. Although they fought on and won other victories, they would never again FEEL the way they felt when they stepped over that wall. I could literally feel the change in them as they retreated from the field, with half of their 12, 500 men either dead, wounded or missing. And for the Union, EVERYTHING changed at this spot. The army had their first big victory over Lee, and, this victory, combined with the fall of Vicksburg at the hands of General Ulysses S. Grant the next day, ended any hope of support from Europe for the South. They were on their own.
I don’t know how to describe it. So beautiful and so overwhelming. So full of feeling and emotion at actually STANDING where these events that I felt so connected to all my life actually happened. All these men with so much bravery, so much passion. I know I’ve posted it before, but I’m going to post it again because it moves me so much and holds the perfect definition of passion to me.
I don’t think there’s really any message in this blog post, I just wanted to share my experience with you. Or maybe it’s whatever message YOU make it up to be. Is there something in your life that has moved you like this? Please share it…