Thursday, October 4, 2012

On Great Fields Something Stays

"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..."

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Dedication of the Maine memorials
October 3, 1888

I like to think of this as the second best thing anyone ever said at Gettysburg. Or to put it another way the best speech ever made by someone who was at the battle. And just as Lincoln's speech perfectly laid out the reasons behind the war, General Chamberlain's speech perfectly captures what it is to come to Gettysburg.

Some places have a special presence, an aliveness if you will. Call it ghosts, call it psychic energy, call it collective consciousness, or whatever else you want, but something is there at places like Gettysburg.  In fact, if one has any sense of spiritual awareness at all, one might ask the opposite question. How could the things that  took place at Gettysburg happen and not leave an imprint upon the land?

The first time I visited Gettysburg I was in college. I had never visited a battlefield before, but thanks to the college history professor who required us to read The Killer Angels, I had a decent overview of
the battle. My dad bought the audio tape for the driving tour and off we went. Because of my dads difficulties walking we mostly drove around, occasionally getting out to take pictures, but even still I perceived the energy that lingers over the battlefield, That trip I was most impressed with the many many memorials to individual regiments, as well as to whole states. Most monuments are at the spot where that group fought.  Most were placed while the veterans of the battle were alive, and able to return to the places where they had so heroically fought and watched others die.  These monuments for the most part honor both the casualties and the survivors. The strongest feeling one gets when looking at the memorials is pride: these  men on both sides were proud of how well they fought, of their courage and daring. 

Nearly 25 years later, I went to Gettysburg again, this time with my children. My empathic  daughter found the battlefield totally oppressive, she could feel the soldiers suffering she said. My son, on the other hand, was fascinated. He had been to one other battlefield, Washington's Crossing in Trenton, but he had never seen anything on the scale of Gettysburg.  On the second day we did 2 things that left lasting memories for both of us. One was going to Little Round Top and walking the area where a relative few Union soldiers held off the Confederates trying to flank the Union line.  When you see how far the 20th Maine memorial is from everything else around it, you get a sense of how isolated they were from the rest of the battle.

The other thing we did was walk Pickett's Charge. I recommend doing this to any physically able person who visits Gettysburg. Only by walking the length of the field can you understand what a madly heroic thing the Charge was.  At one point the ground dips, so you can't see where you are going, but you realize the watchers on the other side can still see you.  Eventually you come to a fence that everyone would have had to climb over, and understand at that point they were basically sitting ducks.  Wrong cause or not....(and I fervently believe their cause was wrong) one can still only marvel at the courage it took to keep crossing that field.
Walking Pickett's Charge

The Fence

The view from the union lines

So this past week I went again to Gettysburg, this time in the company of my son only. He was delighted to have as much time as he wanted to walk the fields and explore the monuments. When I  got tired of   walking I simply handed him the camera and waited for him. (Gettysburg is a great place to just sit and think, also.)

This year, for the first time in our visits, we went to the cemetery. The cemetery isn't really that large, only about 12 acres, but it must have looked different in 1863, with all those freshly dug graves.  The graves are arranged by states, with named markers when identification was possible, but in many cases it was not, and one of the most moving sights in Gettysburg is the many small markers bearing only a number.

The place where Lincoln spoke is marked as well, and as you stand there looking across the graves, you can imagine what was Lincoln's mind as he spoke of "the last full measure of devotion" that was spread out in front of him. 

Another reason for the unique atmosphere  of Gettysburg is that it has been so well preserved and maintained.  The town itself has remained small and charming, there are no chain stores or fast food restaurants in the vicinity of the main battlefield, and if some of the attractions run a little to the tacky, you can always move on to the next one. The many ghost tours seem to be  treated by local people with the same sort of affection that people in Salem have for witches. Because it is so well preserved it is possible to stand at nearly every important site of the battle, and almost all of it is in walking distance of the town square (which is a circle by the way)

And there are other bits of history that aren't even related to the civil war.  Eddie Plank, a baseball Hall of Famer was from Gettysburg. There is a tavern and a ball field that honor him. And Gettysburg is where Dwight Eisenhower retired after his presidency. He wrote his memoirs in an office on the college campus that is now the admissions office, and his farm and house have been preserved by the Parks Service and can be toured. 

In the end the  coolest thing about Gettysburg is that even as it represents conflict and suffering it is a symbol of reconcilliation and peace as well. It was here that the great reunions of veterans from both sides were held in years after the war. It was here that on the 75th anniversary of the battle FDR dedicated the Peace Flame that has burned ever since.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I freely admit to being a history geek of sorts. I have been to a lot of historic places in the US, and hope to get to many more. A few though have a unique aura, as if the people who lived there are still around, or if the ground or building has a life of its own. Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Monticello, the deck of the Constitution in Boston...these places have a life force of their own.

And so does Gettysburg.

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