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Gettysburg 2020

A quick trip on Saturday to Gettysburg. Hallowed ground.

Went down with my good friend Chuck Gudatis, who served as my tour guide. I’ve toured the battlefield maybe 5 times previously, but it’s so large that it helps to have somebody that can point you in the right direction when you start to get geographically confused. Chuck estimates that he’s been there 80 times, and knows every road….every corner….every short cut…..every troop movement. And he’s got a wealth of stories to go with it. No better company.

It was a gorgeous day, deep blue sky and a gentle fall breeze. Not crazy crowded like it can get in the summer. You could stretch your legs without having to worry about getting hit by a tour bus.

51,000 men fell here….and one woman. Jenny Wade was baking bread in her sister’s house when a stray bullet crashed through the door and pierced her heart, the only civilian casualty of those 3 horrible days. As you drive into town on Baltimore St, the small Wade house is on your right, wedged between the massive parking lot of a charmless visitor’s center and a former Holiday Inn motel, directly across the street from a convenient store that on previous visits we raided for 6 packs of beer. The 20/21st century has trolled the 19th HARD in Gettysburg….so get used to this sort of thing. If you continue into town and are interested in where Lincoln stayed the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address, it’s easy to find. Look for the tall dude giving what looks like directions to a tourist wearing a Clancy Brother’s sweater, 90s corduroys, and Dad-sneakers. It might be one of the most ridiculous statues ever commissioned, and it’s things like this that make serious Civil War buffs lose their minds. (And I haven’t even gotten to the McDonald’s within a pistol shot of the Confederate high water mark on Cemetery Ridge…the one next to General Pickett’s Buffet…)

But I digress.

It’s a strange time….with a pandemic raging. We wore masks, but hardly anybody else did. So we did our best to be as socially distant as possible, but since we’re from NEPA that wasn’t too hard. We stayed out of the town, and ate lunch on Seminary Ridge, next to the weirdly proportioned James Longstreet statue, which looks like the General on a carousel ride. Longstreet did not want to fight here, and had the temerity to criticize Robert E Lee when doing so was akin to spitting in somebody’s food. Lee’s own garish statue, sitting on top of the Virginia monument, is so close it practically throws shade. It’s the size of a house, and he looks like Zeus on top of it…..and I can’t help thinking that his lost-cause cult members had something to do with this….er….imbalance.

We were soon gazing across that infamous mile. To the copse of trees. And once again tried to imagine the unimaginable. 12,500 men marched out of these woods, into hell. Half of them would never return. It’s called a “charge”, but they did no such thing. They walked. And a single exploding artillery shell could take out 10 of them at a time. They simply closed ranks and kept walking. The tactics of the Civil War were from the days of Napoleon. The weapons were modern. The carnage was ghastly. So much of the bravery was wasted. As we walked across the field I could not keep my eyes off those trees. “Home boys. Home is just beyond those hills….” is what one Confederate General yelled out, right before he had his head blown off. It seemed madness. I was suddenly mindful of every step. And I wondered how I would have measured up. If the confederacy had to rely on my bravery, I suspect they would not have made it this far.

Being on that field is like being in a church. Even a non-believer keeps his voice down, out of respect. It was once the loudest spot in North America (the cannonade could be heard in Harrisburg). Today, you can hear the brown grass crunching under your feet, and the songs of the crickets. I could set up microphones out here and record music.

Gettysburg is the kind of place that tosses your memories around. Little Round Top is one of the most famous spots on the field, and as I mentioned I’ve been up there before. Even so, I was shocked to find the location of the 20th Maine marker well below the summit, practically behind the line. Not at all what I remembered. I finally understood what it meant to be the flank of the army on that day. If the 20th Maine had not stood firm, the confederates would have crashed into the rear of the army and driven it off the ridge. The war might have ended that day, if not for 300 Maine men and a crazy bayonet charge. I always suspected there was a bit of hyperbole to the legend. There was not.

Another thing I missed on other visits were the private homes in the park itself, some in the paths of the standard auto-tour stops. Not much privacy, but a front row seat for sure. One featured a sign for our times. “This battle was fought BECAUSE Black Lives Matter”. Gettysburg has bizarrely become a sort of MAGA backwater, a place where armed militias gather to wave confederate and Trump flags. One might call this the high water mark of the failure of our education system. Whatever. It made me feel good to know that some folks at least were aware that the south lost.

Onward we moved. Through Devil’s Den and the Peach Orchard and into the Wheatfield, three of the most savage locations on earth, filled with blood and ghosts and men and epic battlefield blunders blunted only by immense sacrifice and suffering. To drive through here as darkness closes in will test any skepticism that the dead always remain that way.

And then the PA memorial on Cemetery Ridge, which lists the names of the 34,530 soldiers from the Keystone state that fought here….fully a third of the Union Army. It’s the largest monument on the field, and it needs, and deserves, to be.

Meade’s headquarters. In Gettysburg those 3 days you took what you could get. The Leister house is about the size of a single car garage, and you can walk in its yard and peer into its windows, trying to imagine that last council of war…generals packed inside literally wall to wall. It’s well behind the lines, but the confederate artillery bombardment that preceded Pickett’s charge mostly fired wild high, so the place took a beating. An orderly serving the Generals butter for lunch was cut into 2 pieces by a shell. The front yard was still covered with disemboweled horses 4 days after the battle. The widow who owned the house counted 17 of them.

The high water mark…our last stop before leaving town. Where the federal line angled out…..and 1500 Virginians broke through the line, and for one tantalizing moment it looked like maybe….but no. Every man who breached the line was either killed or captured. And that was that. Close your eyes, and all around you were masses of men, engaged in a sweaty, blood-soaked, murderous fist-fight. It wasn’t just bodies that carpeted the ground. It was body parts. Heads. Arms. Legs. Perhaps this was the pinnacle of our national madness. All the casualties were Americans. We’ve been trying to heal ourselves ever since.

To visit this place is to be energized and exhausted at the same time. The more you visit, the more you learn. The more you notice. The deeper you feel. The incredulity. The melancholia. The awe.

And the more the place gets its hooks into you.

In a bit..

–tf

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Tony Mozingo
    November 17, 2020 at 11:32 pm

    What a great writing!
    Well done.
    From south Mississippi

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