This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. No American gets through a public education without at least once learning of this watershed event. Immortalized by Lincoln’s words, Romaticised by Michael Shaara’s pen, embalmed by the National Park Service, and commercialized by tourist traps, this small Pennsylvania valley town thrives in a region of America that isn’t nearly as lucky—the Appalachian Piedmont.
The linguist me in savors the unintended double entendre of the word “civil” in the phrase “American Civil War.” That title is even deceiving—most of the Civil War was waged in Virginia, most of the South’s command was from the Old Dominion. Burial sites are not called tombs but shrines—a powerful word sentimentalizing the loss of Dixie; relics to a lost culture. There was nothing civil about this war. It was either genocide of a culture, waged in the Deep South, or the righteous emancipation of the enslaved. It was also the nail in the agrarian coffin, and the triumph of the industrial revolution. The Civil War lives large in our culture because through it, our modern culture was born.
“Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep…”–Paradise Lost, Milton
To this day, the scars on America from this conflict are still oddly visible, in places where the poor who fought this war on behalf of the philosopher kings of the US Senate, House of Representatives, Governorships and White House passed down their bile for one another. When I moved south of the Mason-Dixon, into the Confederacy, I found that the scars of war remain all over. Battlefield signs litter every rural town. The war was common place here. People know who their ancestors were that fought in the war.
“Who overcomes, by force, hath overcome but half his foe.”–Paradise Lost, Milton
Gettysburg is unique among the battles for its location, victors, and bloodshed. Sons of Pennsylvania in particular know the story of Gettysburg well. In 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee made a push into the Union, taking the war to the Union, to turn her soil into battlefields. For the first three years of the war, Lee was the victor in every major conflict. The north suffered from clumsy and arrogant leadership in the Army. Lincoln replaced generals constantly. Lee was perhaps the greatest tactician to have graduated West Point, and he wasn’t on the Union’s side. Lee’s plan was to rally in the North, then invade Washington, DC from the top of the map. His hope was to force northern politicians to abandon the bloodshed and begin to negotiate with the South as an equal nation. Had he been successful, the path to DC from Gettysburg would be unimpeded. The maneuver was audacious in vision.
“Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell. ”–Paradise Lost, Milton
Yet, by accident, the northern army’s Calvary intercepted Lee’s divisions outside of Gettysburg. The Northern army had the enviable “high ground,” so necessary in field combat. The southern army would have to march over open farmland and up the Pennsylvania foothills to dislodge the army from the hilltops. Lee knew he could not win here, yet that odd chivalry captured so well in Shaara’s “The Killer Angles” compelled these generals to send their infantry into the great maw of battle.
“Be strong, live happy and love, but first of all
Him whom to love is to obey, and keep
His great command!”–Paradise Lost, Milton
What do people seek when the come to these Pennsylvanian fields of war? Or any old American battlefield for that matter? America is still largely rural, and every battlefield of every conflict remains consecrated ground. In old Europe, many battlefronts are obscured by development as there is no room for such preservation. And among those hallowed park lands, Gettysburg lives largest among battlefield sites. The tourist industry keeps the little town afloat. The latest generation of tourists seem to seek some sort of wholesome entertainments for their families–soft serve ice-cream, souvenirs, and ghost hunting. Previous generations littered the battlefield with Roadside Americana neon and kitch. And before them, the survivors of the conflict in the height of late 19th century Romanticism encrusted the farmlands with countless monuments to the fallen men, regiments, divisions and corps.
“What though the field be lost?
All is not Lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And the courage never to submit or yield.”–Paradise Lost, Milton
Historians differ on whether Gettysburg is worth the fuss. The northerners, yellow journalists and victors declared Gettysburg the “high water mark” of the Confederacy. Lee’s first major defeat would linger–he would never win decisively again. The South’s only hope after Gettysburg was for stalemate. Disregarded at the time, Lincoln made a rather pithy speech compared to the two-hour oration of Everett, yet the Gettysburg Address is one of the great sentiments of American Oratory, etched on every schoolboys heart. Yet the battle was not decisive, as the war would continue, more lives would be lost elsewhere.
Gettysburg is a destination that is a mirror–it shows the admirer what he want to see. Civil War re-enactors display a living tribute to that age on those fields as a sign of respect. Or perhaps they are the original fanboys. Ghost hunters wander Elysium at night, seeing shadows and mist, in the believe that the carnage of a century and a half ago is indelible on this landscape. Of that notion, I too am romantic, but know full well that many tourist who know nothing of the events of the day see just farmland and soft-serve ice cream.
“Solitude is sometimes the best company”–Paradise Lost, Milton
However, the austere beauty of the place, high up over the battlefields from Little Roundtop, can allow for contemplation if you are there at the right time of day. Truly summer is the season for Gettysburg, with its throngs of tourists marching through the fields, riding the tram along major sites, and even driving along roadways–much like a cemetery’s row. My last visit to Gettysburg was in summer. I was staying in nearby Emmitsburg, Maryland for a business meeting, and I knew that travel adventure awaited me a mere 10 miles up the road. I benefited from the early morning sun waking me at 5 AM. And before the tourists’ wake, I took to the fields early, to walk in solitude (with the occasional local morning jogger doing his routine) among the fields. I thought of my own ancestors–some of which fought here–and the stories passed down to me. Of my ancestral grandfather whose horse doctoring made him good enough to wield a field “surgeons” bone saw. Or how many lead bullets caused amputation–including his own.
I saw the remnants of the modernist Richard Neutra cyclorama building, which used to house a 360 degree painting of “Pickett’s Charge.” The building, despised by re-enactors and historians and now demolished, was replaced with a derivative historicist barn that looks just as awful. I loved that contrast–the stark white building behind the copse of trees, but I suppose I was in the minority. But that struggle typifies the new Battle of Gettysburg. Nearly half of the battlefields are preserved–the rest have been developed with ticky-tack homes, economotels, and neon signs. Sometimes the historians win, as in the defeat of a casino developer. Sometimes they lose. In those loses, I see Gettysburg as lost. Others may see Gettysburg found.
And still others see none of it. When I saw families wander down West Middle Street with dad agog in boyhood nostalgia, mom window shopping among the old Victorian storefronts, boys in union caps and daughters with the soft-serve, I noticed that perhaps Gettysburg offers something for every personality in a rather organic way. Gettysburg’s industry is not commanded by some Miltonian despot governing an Epcot Center conglomerate that has burnished the entire town under one brand. Rather, each small, independent enterprise adds to the whole. And seeing this sacred place in total, rather than its component parts relieves that discord, that in this paradise a war once happened.
“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”–Paradise Lost, Milton