**Please note that this post is: Off Topic, Non-Alaskan, Long, and most of all My Opinions/Interpretations — it is also one that I am very proud to share**
July 1st, 2nd, and 3rd mark the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg; the pivotal and symbolic turning point of the American Civil War. On these days, the Confederacy of America’s Army of Northern Virginia pushed forward as deep into the United States as they ever had during the five year war; but in the end were defeated by the Army of the Potomac at a small Pennsylvanian college town. Historians could argue about the significance of this battle to the over all war, made hazy by the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4th, 1863 (the same day the Southerners withdrew from Gettysburg); but Gettysburg is considered to be one of the greatest battles, ever, in the history of the world.
The battle keeps a place in my heart for more reasons that I could ever keep in a blog. It was a bucket list destination before I knew what a bucket list was. I visited Gettysburg eight times since 1997 (that is a vacation there nearly every other year), most recently last summer at this same time. I’ve taken nearly every tour available, some of the recorded tours I can recite from memory (“IF … there’s that word again … IF”). I stayed at half the hotels in town, hiked the mountains around there, took a ghost hunting class, geocached, sipped high end bourbon, and even convinced myself into a business plan to retire there someday. While I keep coming back, the madness of setting to move to Alaska made me miss the opportunity to get a good place to stay there near enough to make visiting this week’s anniversary worth doing.
Part of what intrigues me about he battle is many of the compelling stories. On the first day, how the Union troops retreated through town and close combat along the streets lead to many of the houses to still show bullet holes and artillery shells in its sides. Little Round Top, the battle made famous by the movie Gettysburg, was won by a Maine division who, while outnumbered and nearly out of ammunition but representing the end of the Union line, went on the offensive and swept down the hill to push a charging Alabaman division back. Spangler’s Spring, the only clean water near the eastern front, became a place of truce where northern and southern solders met to have a cool drink of water. “Picket’s Charge” on the 3rd day of battle, is final chapter of the confrontation, when over 12,000 Southern men walked across nearly a mile of open farmland to attack the Northern Defenses – it’s there where I visit the most.
On the high ground of Cemetery hill, just off of the Baltimore Pike, there is a monument (well, there are thousands of monuments, but this one is special). It is a bronze statue of a book containing Confederate Armies, propped up on cannon balls over a granite base. The monument was funded by each of the northern states that fought during the battle, and is a memorial to those who they fought against. It is called the “High Water Mark of the Rebellion”, and it stands on the location where the furthest Southern soldier made it through the Northern lines during “Picket’s Charge”. While it physically represents the furthest breach, if the fight in that area was won by the South, they would have broken the Union Army in two, and while the Union was bringing itself back together conceivably the Army of Northern Virginia would have been able to march the remaining 60 miles to Washington with little resistance – and could possibly end the war. That high water mark represents the closest the South came to ending the war. It represents the closest the Confederacy of surviving possibly to this day. Second only to foot prints in the sand where an American stepped onto the Moon, I can’t conceive a physical location where a country in our known world can point to a spot and say “that there, that is our greatest moment”.
My return to Gettysburg so often seems to include time on Picket’s Charge. I find time to walk the battlefield, alone and in solitude. I do so to try to realize what it must have been like, picturing the view a solider would have seen, and coming the close to realizing the fear they must have felt. There is a strength that comes with walking that field though, one that reminds me that the problems I face day in and day out, they just aren’t that critical. What I have to fear is minimal compared to how they likely felt.
The most remembered story of Gettysburg is that told by Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address. I find it ironic that the most remember portion of that speech is the least applicable — “Four Score & Seven Years” is just dating the speech. Ironically, Lincoln predicted that in his address, and did so to remind us of what really is important. He said:
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
At a time when the battle raged on, he asked for people to continue to fight the fight the soldiers of that field already had. He also pushed that we dedicate ourselves to “these honored dead”, and be devoted to causes much like they gave “the last full measure of devotion”. Somewhere within those thoughts lie where my love for this battlefield comes from. It reminds me of those who gave their last full measure for something they believed in, and while I will never be strong or brave enough to go to war I can find strength in those who are. How I can’t believe that the world will remember what I say, but I need to make what I did here something to never forget.