Most history lacks the connective tissue of personal involvement.
It’s tough to get interested in history because it seems long ago and far away from where we live today.
However, that’s not true of Gettysburg National Park. Gettysburg is felt history — from the soles of one’s feet right down to the cannonade of one’s soul. Gettysburg is history in vivo.
Gettysburg National Military Park shines a hot and focused spotlight on just three days in history — July 1-3, 1863 — when Gen. Robert Edward Lee, 70,000 of his troops, and 280 cannons tangled with the 93,000 federal Army and 372 cannons, led by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade.
Over the course of those three brutal and bloody days, two armies — both American — suffered perhaps 51,000 casualties — the largest number of casualties for the entire Civil War, and the most for any single battle in U.S. history.
Of those casualties, 7,058 were fatalities — 3,155 Union and 3,903 Confederate. It’s a time and a place that we still mark and mourn. It’s where the confederate rebellion could have broken through, but was broken.
Gettysburg is an unusual park setting: 6,000 acres of fields and forest immediately south of the town of Gettysburg, Pa.
A visitor has several remarkable options for getting around the national park. She can read her way through the park herself using the park’s printed guided tour brochure. She can purchase an in-car audio CD, she can hire a physical human being — a licensed battlefield guide — to drive her around for a couple of hours in her private vehicle; or she can join a licensed guide aboard a park tour bus.
The bus allows a visitor to get off and walk around in a select few spots. If you drive yourself, you set the pace.
I’ll admit, at most parks, I’m a skip-the-printed-info-markers-and-get-out-and-walk-the-park kind of guy. But not at Gettysburg.
Any time you stop at one of the brochure’s trail markers you are energized to both visualize and absorb — in 360 degrees of physical deployment — the events of those infamous three days.
Look north and west from where you’re now standing: From that direction, men ran full-on into loaded muskets and cannon fire. Behind that fence, men crouched in despair. Upon that hillside or that lawn, men breathed their last, for causes questioned still.
Lee had just won big at Chancellorsville, Va., in May 1863. Things were going the confederacy’s way, and Lee decided to move the fighting out of the South in hopes of providing ravaged Virginia some relief, while living off the resources of the fat — and untouched — Union countryside.
A win at Gettysburg might have sealed the deal for the Southern states.
Outcome in doubt
What transpired could not have been predicted; too many human and physical variables.
Had Lee not allowed the Union troops to dig in atop Cemetery Ridge after the first day of fighting; had the 20th Maine regiment not charged down from Little Round Top, bayonets fixed; had Lee not ignored Longstreet’s misgivings about “Pickett’s Charge,” had any of these or other chance events not occurred, the South might well have won the battle.
After the battle, Lee admitted to his troops his personal culpability in losing. His ensuing offer of resignation was refused by Jefferson Davis.
Gettysburg is covered with monuments — 1,328 of them to be exact — kind of a “Memorial Club” whose members are the U.S. states with troops present at the time — 29 in all.
The New York monument is more than 90 feet tall. Pennsylvania’s is 110 feet tall, heaped of 3,840 tons of granite, sand, bronze, and cement, and big as a courthouse.
Wisconsin “sponsors” seven monuments to troops present during the battle. Interestingly, many of the Confederate monuments lament the great loss of lives while at the same time stubbornly and unapologetically proclaiming the righteousness of the southern cause.
It’s fitting perhaps, to end your tour of Gettysburg at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, where Lincoln delivered his moving address on November 19th, 1963 — four months after the battle there, as the war was winding down. Visiting that cemetery and reading to oneself that address is as patriotic an act as an American can express.
When you’re done with the brochure tour, and freshly-primed with the many stories of the battle, it’s time for the Museum and Visitor Center, and a few minutes spent in the Museum’s “theater-in-the-round,” the Gettysburg Cyclorama.
The Cyclorama — longer than a football field — was painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, and is in itself, a singular entertainment and learning experience.
Watch the Morgan Freeman-narrated film, then stand at the hub of the Cyclorama’s “revolving” show.
I happen to believe that heroism is best-defined by those who do everything within their power to resolve conflict without picking up a gun.
That is not the legacy of Gettysburg.
Like all wars, The War Between the States was a tragic lesson in human absurdity. The individual officers who called the shots and led the charges were streaked with abundant flaws — from cowardice and incompetence to overconfidence and vanity.
Some made brilliant strategic decisions, some awful, but most simply caved to coincidence or luck.
The moving parts of the battle of Gettysburg spun far too fast for any one army to corral or command, and all these years later, the residual effect is what we all still feel as Americans; not the glory of victory, but the devastation of regret, and shame, and grief.
If for no other reason, visit the park to perhaps feel down to your roots the folly of war.
Betchkal is a freelance writer based in Eau Claire.