Thinking About Gettysburg

Looking toward the Valley of Death and LIttle Round Top.

Looking toward the Valley of Death and Little Round Top.








The U.S. is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863—although I don’t know how many people generally are aware of it. I know Time put out a commemorative edition, and there was a slideshow on one of the local news websites titled “25 Things You Should Know About the Battle of Gettysburg.” I haven’t come across anything special on The History Channel so far. No picking, pawn shops, or restored cars involved with the battle, I guess. (To be fair, I think they did have a special on Gettysburg last summer; I wasn’t that impressed with it.)

I really got into Gettysburg after the broadcast of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, especially the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Chamberlain became a personal hero to me, my mother, and Diamondqueen. In fact, J.Hooligan is his namesake.

A very young J.Hooligan examining Chamberlain's marker on Little Round Top.

A very young J.Hooligan examining Chamberlain’s marker on Little Round Top.

However, I was aware of Gettysburg since studies of the Civil War in grade school. Our lessons weren’t in-depth, but at least one book had a picture of the Evergreen Cemetery gatehouse accompanying the section on the battle of Gettysburg. I knew nothing about war except what I’d seen on television and in the movies. I thought a battlefield was literally a field of battle, some huge expanse of land designated for fighting, as if all the violence and danger was contained in that particular area. Photos of the gatehouse confused me; there was fighting near a cemetery? Near a town? I couldn’t comprehend it.

Of course, I also knew of Gettysburg because of Lincoln’s address, which we had to memorize, probably in seventh grade. When Lincoln said, “We are met on a great battlefield of that war,” I thought he was referring to that vast expanse set aside for battle. I’m not sure I understood that the speech was part of a ceremony dedicating the Soldier’s Cemetery and that it was right next door to the Evergreen Cemetery—and that the whole town was actually part of the “battlefield.”

Gettysburg wasn’t the first site of Civil War fighting I visited. The year after the documentary first aired, in 1991, Mom and I visited the Fredericksburg area, including the Wilderness and Chancellorsville sites as well as Marye’s Heights where the infamous stone wall stood. I was electrified to stand where all these famous events had happened. I knew I had to travel to Pensylvania one day and see Gettysburg.

By the summer of 1993 I’d already read Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. I decided to read The Killer Angels before our autumn trip. The book changed my life, both because it’s a stellar book and because it deeply examined the battle from both North and South perspectives in a very human way. Colonel Chamberlain was a major character, which didn’t hurt. I bought Gettysburg, A Journey in Time by William A. Frassanito and studied all the photos showing battlefield scenes from 1863 next to modern day images of the same location.

I was well prepared for my Gettysburg visit in September, but the experience still took my breath away when I first saw the Evergreen gatehouse, Lee’s headquarters, Little Round Top, and especially Cemetery Ridge looking out over the scene of Pickett’s Charge.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve returned to Gettysburg with Mom or with Diamondqueen and the Hooligans. Some stays were for several nights, sometimes the town was a quick side trip while we were on our way somewhere else. It became a strange phenomenon that significant things occurred while we were visiting. Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both died during separate stays in Gettysburg; each time I saw the flag at half staff at the Soldier’s Cemetery and wondered what had happened.

I’ve written before about being in Gettysburg on 9/11. In 2005, my stepfather was dying in the hospital while we were away in Pennsylvania and passed on shortly after we returned. My father was dying in the hospital during our 2009 visit and departed a couple of weeks later.

In those last two instances, the Gettysburg trips were gifts for my 50th and 55th birthdays. Everyone insisted we go through with our plans despite the circumstances. My second-ever trip to Gettysburg was a gift from Mom and Diamondqueen for my 40th birthday. I’d stated after our first visit that one of my dreams (now I’d say it was an entry on my bucket list) was to have breakfast on the boulder that held the 20th Maine monument on Little Round Top. Our first morning we bought pastries and juice and coffee at the local Perkins and perched on that boulder in the sunshine, fulfilling my dream.

Even though I haven’t returned to Gettysburg since the 2009 visit, I definitely want to go again. Beyond the historical significance of the place, the battlefield, ironically, is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. Mom says she’s not up to the long drive any longer, and that makes me terribly sad. Maybe Diamondqueen will travel there with me again one day, or I’ll find a way to get there by myself. Right now, though, during these three days of commemoration of the battle, I’m certainly there in spirit.

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