Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Gettysburg: Marking 150 Years of Preservation and Remembrance

Gettysburg: Marking 150 Years of Preservation and Remembrance
Written by Lauryn E. Nosek

This year marked the 150th anniversary of what most historians consider the turning point of the Civil War: the Battle of Gettysburg. Every year there’s a massive reenactment in those first few days of July but this year’s gathering was, unsurprisingly, larger than usual, drawing participants from across the nation and several from outside the United States. There is still the famous anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November and it will have its own set of special events in which visitors can partake. Not one for massive crowds, my visit to Gettysburg was in June of 2013.

The monument to the 11th New Jersey Volunteers at Gettysburg National Military Park.
There is so much to see in the over 6,000 acres that have been preserved and make up the historic battlefield. The options for guided tours span the decades. You can see it from horseback as the cavalry and officers would have done (and which I can personally recommend). The Visitor Center, opened in 2008, offers a driving tour that allows you to visit many of the battlefields’ more famous landmarks in any order you wish. There are also several venues that offer guided Segway tours through the town or along the paved roads through the fields. 

While it is possible to learn an amazing amount just by walking around, I’m one of those people who goes way overboard researching and prepping for my historic vacations (if I don’t already know at least half of what the tour guides say, a little piece of the nerd inside me dies of shame). It just so happened that the week before my family and I left on our trip, PBS reran Ken Burns’ amazing documentary, which I had only seen bits and pieces of since I had to watch it in high school. I’m still amazed by how effective Burns’ minimal approach is. No flashy reenactments with actors, just audio samples of fighting or readings from contemporary accounts over still images from the period or serene landscapes of the preserved battlefields. 

The Visitor Center provides a lot of information about the three-day-long battle as well as the progression of the war as a whole. They have tickets available for their extensive museum as well as for a short film and impressive cyclorama depicting Pickett’s Charge on the final day of battle. Apparently my patience for the museum was greater than the rest of my family. Fortunately, the museum has several shortcuts out to the gift shop. In addition to the myriad of souvenirs, the gift shops around Gettysburg have a plethora of novels and books about the battle, its famous figures, and the rest of the war. It is through the accounts in many of those books that the different sites in and around Gettysburg became so impressive and meaningful. 

A statue of President Abraham Lincoln at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center.
Photo by Lauryn E. Nosek.
So much of Gettysburg for me is wrapped up in the stand of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top. In the three times I have read Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, the account given of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his men who were stuck at the end of the Union line is what has always resonated the most. I was afraid we would not get the chance to see Little Round Top when a storm came up suddenly in the afternoon on the day we’d planned to go. From one of several tower structures scattered along the roads following the Confederate and Union lines, we watched the dark clouds advance. I pushed for us to skip ahead a few tracks on the CD for the guided driving tour and we easily passed dozens of markers, plaques, and statues as we made our way toward Little Round Top. The rain was just starting to fall as I jumped out of the car and raced along a path through the woods to where a low stonewall still sits and markers show the left and right flanks of where the 20th Maine held the line. 

It’s often difficult to remember that Shaara’s book is technically a novel. It is very well researched and completely compelling; mostly because of the way that he engages the disparate voices of commanders and soldiers from both sides. He perfectly captures the strains of the war on the closest of friendships and the bond between brothers, even when both are on the same side. A marker stands where Armistead fell on the final day of battle, looking out over the open field that so many men tried to cross during Pickett’s charge. On the other side of town, a statue of his good friend but enemy in war, Hancock, leads his troops in the battle’s earlier days. 

We were able to return the following day after a few hours in the saddle, and from the boulders of Little Round Top, we could look out and trace the paths we’d ridden in the morning. It’s a breathtaking view but also humbling. Little has changed in the rock formations from when those very early photographs memorialized where bodies fell - photos that were used in Ken Burns’ documentary. Emerging from the trees, large monuments and smaller markers are scattered on the face of the hill, amongst the larger naturally occurring formations. Across the open space at the tree line along the horizon, you can make out the lines of markers and monuments that show the Confederate troops’ positions.

Devil's Den at Gettysburg National Military Park.
We did not have time to get out and walk through Devil’s Den but we did hike in and along the top of Little Round Top for a while. Just when you think you’ve found all the memorials in an area, you turn around to walk back and a little ways down the hill in the distance, you see a pile of cannonballs atop another marble slab, but you can’t make out the writing and know there are too many nooks and crannies where men died during those three days. 

Everything in and around Gettysburg has been marked, if not during the battle, then sometime in the last 150 years. Veterans of the fighting began a push to preserve the fields where their comrades fell before the Civil War had even ended. The positions of different units can be seen in the distance as each has been commemorated two or three times over with formal military plaques on one side of a paved street and a statue commissioned by units’ surviving members or groups like Daughters of the Confederacy on the other. Because there was so much information, I found myself taking photos of the plaques so that we could keep pace with our schedule so I would have the option of reading the histories of these men later.

There were so many men. Throughout Gettysburg, so many names have been carved in stone or cast in bronze. Some appear several times. One man, Major General John Fulton Reynolds, a Pennsylvania native, chose the Union cavalry’s position the first day of fighting and died helping his men hold it while they waited for reinforcements. There are at least three statues of him in Gettysburg: one where he fell, one on the grand Pennsylvania monument, and one in the National Cemetery. Others’ names don’t appear at all. In the same National Cemetery, rings of small stones embedded in the ground bear only numbers. Rows of them ripple out from the somber central monument. Every so often, they still find remains of soldiers in Gettysburg. Through modern science, some of these remains have even been identified and returned to the descendants of their families.

The Gettysburg National Cemetery within the Gettysburg National Military Park.
In addition to markers, Gettysburg overflows with stories. I heard the tale of Jennie Wade, the only civilian casualty of the battle, during one of several ghost tours that take to the streets of downtown Gettysburg after sunset. Even in the dimming light, it’s possible to see the bullet holes that dot the red brick sides of numerous buildings in the town. The ghost tours are actually a wonderful way to see the town. So much of the battlefields are, well, fields. But much of the battle was actually fought in the town while civilians hid in cellars or worked to help the wounded and dying, as was the case with Jennie Wade. 

We were lucky to find a really good travel package through AAA that included our hotel and passes to so many of the museums and tours I've mentioned. It even included a free copy of one of several titles available at local gift shops. One of my high school history teachers was a tremendous Civil War buff and huge fan of Shelby Foote. He passed that love of history and good storytelling onto my fellow students and me. There was even a petition that was passed around to try and get Shelby Foote to speak to our class. Sadly, Shelby Foote passed away that same year and I remember how inconsolable we were as a class. Naturally, when the opportunity arose to select a free book on Gettysburg, I opted for Stars in Their Courses, the few chapters from Foote’s larger collection pertaining solely to the Gettysburg campaign (and was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed his writing style given that I lean towards novelizations like Shaara’s). 

If you can’t get to Gettysburg during the 150th anniversary, it is never too early to start planning or learning about it. Connecting to history through books or movies can truly deepen the experience you have when you are finally able to walk along the same ground later. 

The North Carolina Monument at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Photo by Lauryn E. Nosek
Additional photos of Gettysburg on Pinterest

About the author: Lauryn E. Nosek is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger, looking for projects while she works towards a career as a novelist. Born and raised in one of the oldest (and smallest) towns in central Massachusetts, growing up surrounded by history helped contribute to her love of books and antiquity with a BA in both English and History as well as an MA in English and American Literature. Visit her blog for samples of her creative writing and book reviews here: http://nightmaresdaydreamsandimaginedconversations.wordpress.com or follow her on twitter @laurynenosek.

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Gettysburg Podcast (right click and choose "save target/link as" to save to your hard drive)

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