July, 1863. The small town (pop. 2,400) of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The place where many roads came together, including where more than 160,000 Federal and Confederate soldiers converged. Here these brave men fought the greatest battle of the war, at a huge cost in lives, and shaped the future of their nation.
Washington’s victory assured at least a fighting chance for nationhood for the original 13 Colonies; the outcome at Gettysburg is generally considered to be the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, therefore assuring the survival of the Union.
“I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine and we fight for Chamberlain. ‘Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind. When the smoke cleared out of Gettysburg many a mother wept. For many a good boy died there, sure, and the air smelled just like death. —Lyrics from Dixieland (1999) by Steve Earle
In 2013, I visited Gettysburg for the first time. Gettysburg was indeed well prepared to celebrate, if that’s the word, the battle on July 1, 2 and 3. There were re-enactments, and the town endured at least twice as many visitors as there were participants in the battle. The spot marking the turning point of the battle that was at the top of Cemetery Ridge, where Pickett’s famous charge petered out as 150 or so Confederates of the 12,000 who initiated the charge briefly breached the Union line and were quickly repulsed — the place where Gen. Lewis Amistead died.
Gettysburg is now a tourist town. If the battle that neither commanding general wanted there had not occurred, it would be just another dot on the map. Apart from tourism, it doesn’t appear to be a very prosperous place. It looks much like it did in 1863; the buildings are still there, most converted from homes to restaurants and the usual gift shops.
The battlefield is another matter. It is nearing the end of a 20-year restoration project intended to make it look the way it did in 1863. Certainly there are lots of people pointing and taking pictures, but it is a large area, and it’s even possible to find place of relative quiet to reflect on what happened there.
However, looking over the battleground and knowing what the men who fought there for only brings me to wonder. What made them do it? What makes any soldier in any army willingly and knowingly brave enough to face death?
I suggest by all means, go sometime, it’s well worth the visit.
- Thousands converge on Gettysburg to mark 150th anniversary of Civil War battle (photoblog.nbcnews.com)