Chasing Gettysburg's Ghosts

Trip Start Oct 08, 2000
Trip End Oct 15, 2000

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Tuesday, October 10, 2000

The day started with the usual hunt for breakfast. Now, before I go on much further, I have to note that one of Tom's favorite things to do is to buy a cup of coffee, situate himself at a conspicuous table, and nurse that cup for about two hours while he either reads or watches people.  Since there weren't a lot of coffee shops in Reading, Tom found the next best thing to satisfy his coffee/reading/people watching urge...he set up shop in the Borders bookstore which was not far from the hotel.  Now, I enjoy spending time in book stores.  But, I was in Pennsylvania to see the sights.  With the day's plan centering around a tour of the battlefield at Gettysburg, I wanted to minimize my time in the bookstore and get on the road.  But, Tom would not be budged.  So, we spent most of the morning in Borders.

After Tom finally finished his coffee, we set off for Gettysburg.  It was on this drive that I got my first daylight taste of Pennsylvania's highways.  As you have probably gathered, I'm from California.  So, I'm use to big four-to-six lane highways.  But, the "highways" we drove to Gettysburg were a far cry from the highways in California to which I was accustomed.  Most of these highways seemed to be relics of a time when they were stagecoach trails. This meant that they ran through the center of towns. I'm not sure if there are historical reasons why many of them are no wider than the two lane path that they originally were. However, I’m sure they were adequate when there wasn’t as much traffic in the state. Unfortunately, the population is now too large for the current road system. Put together too many cars and very narrow roads located through the center of cities and you get frequent traffic jams. We endured an especially thick traffic jam trying to get through York.  Eventually, we did find some good four lane highways (like Highway 15 from Harrisburg to Gettysburg). But, they were the exception. We eventually came to the conclusion that if one is exploring Southeast Pennsylvania by car, one has to expect some delays in getting to different destinations.

Between the late start and the slow going on the highways, it was about 2 p.m when we finally pulled into Gettysburg.  By now, we were hungry again.  So, our first stop was at The Pub on Lincoln Square in the center of town.  The place was decorated with a lot of red, white, and blue bunting, which was a decent attempt to engender a patriotic feeling.  But, the food wasn't as great as the decor.  Still, it satisified our hunger, and gave us the energy to start our tour.

I had high expectations of what I would derive out of my visit to Gettysburg. To put it simply, I expected Gettysburg to be the highlight of my trip. I had also expected Gettysburg to be a great cathartic, emotional experience for me. My expectation was based on the feelings I felt at Kennesaw Mountain just north of Atlanta. I stood on the ground between the Union and Confederate battlements on Kennesaw Mountain (which are about 20 feet apart) and almost started crying at the lunacy of the whole situation. If I was almost in tears at a relatively minor Civil War battle site, I wondered how I’d react when I toured THE definitive Civil War battlefield.

Despite the fact that it was the middle of October, there were still plenty of tourists (particularly children) in the battlefield museum, which was our first stop. We went inside to look at the exhibits. The museum does contain some very interesting artifacts, like a shell and the roof rafters it pierced. However, many of these artifacts were in displays that were very outdated. Even the building itself had peeling paint and a very dated feel. It was pretty clear that the museum needs some serious renovation in order to make it a more informative and interactive experience for visitors.  And, in fact, a new museum was dedicated just a few years after I toured the battlefield.

Our next stop was the cemetery, which is directly across the street from the museum. My first reaction when I entered was "Where’s all the graves?" In fact, there are no graves near the cemetery entrance across from the visitor’s center. Instead, the grounds could be mistaken for a park. There’s a large grandstand, a lot of trees, and immaculately manicured lawns near that entrance. The only indication that there is something different is the monument to the Gettysburg Address. The monument’s location is not where the actual speech took place. Instead, it’s simply a reminder that the monumental speech took place in the cemetery.

About 200 yards north of the Gettysburg Address Monument were the battle’s participant’s graves. The graves are in a semi-circle around the National Soldier’s Monument, which was where the Gettysburg Address was actually delivered. They are identified by concrete rows that arch out around the monument. Many of the rows are inscribed with names. However, there are a few rows that use numbers to identify that a body is resting in the plot just in front of the number. Seeing the numbers was the only time during my visit that invoked a feeling in me similar to the one at Kennesaw Mountain. It seemed incredibly sad that there were people who gave their lives for their beliefs, and yet no one (to this day) knows who they are.

We continued around the graves on the paved loop that runs through the necropolis. Occasionally, we’d stop to take a picture or just look at the names. A lot of other tourists were doing the same thing. I began to notice that there seemed to be an unspoken bond that existed between the cemetery’s visitors. Respect and veneration were the main emotions being shown by the tourists. There were neither screaming children nor obnoxious laughter. Instead, everyone seemed to recognize that they were in a special place that deserved quiet reflection and reverence.

We exited the cemetery through the gate where we entered. We went back to the visitor’s center parking lot to get our car in order to begin the driving tour. By now, it was about 5:15 p.m. We were a little worried, because the brochure we obtained in the Visitor’s Center said that the driving tour would take about two hours and there was only about ninety minutes of sunlight left. But, Tom thought we could make it.

We first passed by various monuments that dotted the fields north of town where the battle's first day action took place.  We made a stop at the General John Reynolds Monument. Reynolds was the highest ranking Union soldier to die at Gettysburg.  The granite obelisk in his honor stands alone in a grove of trees just northwest of the town. It marks the spot where Reynolds was killed. I enjoyed it because it was a simple, yet poignant, reminder of Reynolds’ importance to his troops.

We then drove past the Peace Monument and went south.  We drove across Seminary Ridge, which was where the Confederate forces camped during the second and third days of the battle.  Naturally, there were a lot of monuments to the Confederate forces along this ridge.  The most moving of these was the North Carolina Monument. This memorial, which was sculpted by the same artist that created Mount Rushmore, stands close to the staging area for Pickett’s Charge. The monument’s statues are posed in a way that makes it appear as though they are going to run across the field to the Union forces once again. It conveys a sense of motion and commitment that isn’t found on any of the other monuments in the park.

We parked next to the Virginia Monument, so that I could fulfill a goal of mine:  to walk the field where Pickett's Charge took place.  By now, it was pretty late in the evening.  Still, even though it was getting dark, I still wanted to walk the path. So, we set off for Cemetery Ridge using a narrative I had downloaded off the Internet as a guide. The narrative turned out to be a great reference document for our walk. While it provided excellent reference material (which beautifully complemented the placards that the National Park Service had placed along the path), one item that was omitted became readily apparent. Nowhere did we see any mention of the terrain’s openness between the two ridges. While there are a couple of small rolling hills on the path, there isn’t any place where a soldier could take cover if an enemy were to fire upon them. It then made sense why over 7,000 of the 11,000 men that took part in the charge were either killed or wounded during the attack. I felt incredulous at the bravery or stupidity that would compel a man to charge across a mile of open terrain while being fired upon. I was also surprised to find that I had a hard time imagining these men run across the field. It seemed easier to visualize tired men trudging back to camp while passing the bodies of their comrades. I think it was the time of day when we traversed the fields that led to my lack of imagination. The sun had almost entirely set and a full moon was rising over the Union monuments on Cemetery Ridge. By the time we had reached the Emmittsburg Road, it was already dark and we still had to walk back to the Virginia Monument. So, we turned back.

It was pitch black when we got back to the car.  We tried to see the rest of the battlefield (it's open past sunset).  But, we couldn't see anything from the road.  So, we set off back to Reading.  I felt cheated.  Thanks to all of our self-inflicted delays, we managed to see only half of the battlefield.  On the drive back to Reading, I resolved to find a way to see the other half of the battlefield before I headed back to California.
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