Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Great Battlefield

Jim and I began our recent vacation by traveling to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This was our third trip there; I'm not sure why we are so fond of this battlefield - probably a mix of reasons: its historical significance; the courage and commitment of all who fought there; the beauty of the countryside and the fields; perhaps simply the knowledge that the victory there was so vital to preserving our nation.

We stayed at a small hotel, America's Best Value Inn; nothing fancy, but clean and friendly. We had dinner at the Friendly's restaurant next door, and then chatted with the staff at the hotel. They talked about growing up in Gettysburg, where - unless you liked wandering the battle fields - there wasn't much for kids to do. They talked about the two history teachers at the high school, one of whom was knowledgeable enough to lead presidents on tours of the battlefields, the other who simply bored his students to tears. They told of people who visited Gettysburg without knowing what it was famous for. (They also remembered a couple who wanted to know which monuments had dogs on them, so they could take pictures back home to their dog.)

One of the clerks told us that President and Mrs Kennedy visited Gettysburg in the summer of 1963. After President Kennedy was killed that November, Mrs Kennedy wanted to install an eternal flame at his grave site in Arlington. They said it couldn't be done, and she said "Oh yes it can, we saw it at Gettysburg." And so they set it up.

Anyway. We made a quick trip of it, starting with the visitor center in the morning, and then driving through the battlefields until we ran out of time. The visitor center was new since our last visit, and very nice. We watched the movie, A New Birth of Freedom, that explained the events at Gettysburg in the large context of the Civil War. And then we saw the cyclorama painting of Pickett's Charge - 377 feet in circumference and 42 feet high.

President Lincoln and me

A portion of the cyclorama

We then tackled the museum, which was fascinating. Using artifacts, photos, personal narratives, it told the story of the battle at Gettysburg from different perspectives. There was so much to take in!

One thing that impressed me was the human cost of the war. So many many lives, lost and damaged.  I hope our country never goes through this again. Sometimes I look at our partisanship today, and wonder.

Photos of soldiers from both sides

We finally tore ourselves from the museum, and spent some time (not enough) driving through the battlefields, looking at the various monuments. Jim was great - he was able to explain each one, and what it represented. Here are just a few photos. (I confess, although I have a general understanding of what happened during the three days of battle, I am most familiar with the battles depicted in the 1993 movie Gettysburg, which Jim and I have watched many times - Buford's fight for the high ground; the Twentieth Maine's defense of the flank at Little Round Top; and Pickett's charge.)



The Peace monument, that Jackie Kennedy remembered.
"An enduring light, to guide us in unity and fellowship"

Virginia monument,
located where Pickett's charge began

Monument to the Twentieth Maine,
by Little Round Top

Here is the Pennsylvania Monument - a very impressive structure. It lists the name of everyone from any Pennsylvania unit who fought at Gettysburg.

You can climb to the top!

View through the center


Lincoln, of course, is forever linked to Gettysburg. After we got home, Jim and I watched Ken Burns' documentary, The Address. That website provides this recap:
The film tells the story of a tiny school in Putney Vermont, the Greenwood School, where each year the students are encouraged to practice, memorize, and recite the Gettysburg Address. In its exploration of the Greenwood School, the film also unlocks the history, context and importance of President Lincoln’s most powerful address.
It was moving on several levels - watching the kids understand and memorize Lincoln's text, and also remembering the battle itself. I recommend watching it, if you have the chance.

Finally, a couple photos of those fields:

The grass reminds me of a poem:
by Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
                     I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
                     What place is this?
                     Where are we now?

                     I am the grass.
                     Let me work.
And yet, the grass notwithstanding, we do still remember.

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