Chasing Gettysburg's Ghost Again & Finding A Saint

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

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Where I stayed
Sheraton Reading

Flag of United States  , Maryland
Thursday, October 12, 2000

We were up early (about 7 a.m.), because Tom actually had to be at work today. But, before he could get to work, we had to obtain transportation for me.  As I mentioned before, we had rented a car when we first arrived in Philadelphia.  But, Tom needed that car to get to work.  Since I wasn't enamoured with the idea of wandering the streets of Reading while waiting for Tom to get out of work, we decided to rent a car for my use.  That meant we had to go to the Reading Airport before Tom had to be at work at 9 a.m.  Consequently, we couldn't go to Borders and spend two hours nursing a cup of coffee.  I was heartbroken at the possibility of missing this morning tradition, but excited that I would be on the road by 9 a.m. 

We rented the car and headed off in different directions.  With such a (relatively) early start on the day, it seemed like the perfect day to head back to Gettysburg and see the rest of the battlefield that I didn't get to see.  Since we'd had such bad luck with traffic travelling to Gettysburg a couple of days earlier, I decided to take a different route.  I had hoped that taking Route 442 to I-15 would be a faster way to get to Gettysburg.  However, the same narrow roads and congestion that I found on our other route was also on this alternate route.  I never thought I'd find myself thinking this thought, but I actually found myself missing California's roads and highways.

While I was less than impressed with the quality of the roads, the route itself had some charms to it.  The best part of the drive was that I went through Hershey.  As I drove past its famous chocolate plant, I was amazed to find that I could actually smell chocolate in the air.  I was tempted to stop for a tour and a bit of chocolate.  But, I was on a mission to visit Gettysburg, so I just drove through.  I also drove past the golden dome of the state capital building in Harrisburg, which is another place where I would've stopped had I not been on my mission.

After about three hours of driving, I finally made it to Gettysburg around noon.  I stopped at McDonald's for a quick lunch, and then started touring where I left off a couple of days before (on Seminary Ridge).  This time, I was able to see all of the Cemetary Ridge sites.  I climbed to the top of Big Round Top, stopped at Little Round Top, walked around the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard, toured around the Angle, and even found time to drive around the sites on the east side of Cemetary Ridge.

The additional time was exactly what I needed to get a much better picture of the battlefield.  The best part of the additional time was that I was able to see things I hadn't noticed on my earlier visit.  The first thing I noticed was how clean the battlefield was. Not only was there very little evidence that visitors toured the site, but many of the war's scars have been cleaned up as well. Again, I was using Kennesaw Mountain as a reference point. I remember being so impressed by seeing the trees with bullet holes from the battle still in them. I was expecting to find something similar at Gettysburg. However, those scars didn’t exist. There were no chip marks on the rocks at Devil’s Den. There were also no bullet holes in the trees of either Big Round Top or Little Round Top. The only physical evidence of a battle could be seen in the cannons that lined many of the driving tour’s streets and a couple of battlements that still remained near the summit of Little Round Top. While it was initially surprising to see everything so sanitized, the battlefield’s condition served as a reminder that Gettysburg didn’t need a battle’s physical evidence to convey the feeling that something of great importance occurred at that spot. Another item I noticed was the large number of monuments that dot the landscape. The monuments are usually for a particular unit that participated in the battle. However, there are a few for particular individuals (General Longstreet, General Meade, General Reynolds) and for states whose soldiers were involved in the fighting. All of these monuments could be enjoyed on a couple of levels. First, they could be enjoyed simply from an artistic perspective. There is an amazing amount of artistic diversity in the various monuments. From simple obelisks to ornate statues, the monuments are stunning works of art. There is simply no way that a visitor can look at them and not feel moved by the emotion that inspired such powerful artistic expressions. It is this emotional quality that imparts the strongest impression on the visitor. The appearance and placement of the monuments immediately gives the visitor the impression of visiting a cemetery. Yet, the battlefield isn’t just a memorial to the dead (that’s for the actual cemetery). A quick read of the text on the monuments shows that the veterans who lived are mentioned in equal terms with those who died. Thus, the visitor not only is imparted with a sense of sadness, but also with a sense of celebration. This sense was especially true at the Pennsylvania Monument. This massive edifice was a little too grandiose on an artistic level for me, but it did a wonderful job of conveying the pride that the state felt toward the battle’s veterans. Its presence spoke volumes about the esteem in which these men were held by their fellow residents.

The emotions conveyed by the presence of the monuments seemed to rub off on visitors. When Tom and I visited earlier in the week, we hadn't interacted with anyone during our visit to the battlefield.  But, because of the time of day when I was there, I was able to talk to the other visitors who were also touring.  I found that visitors tended to display a strange mix of pride, sadness, reverence, and awe at the sacrifice that occurred at Gettysburg. Perhaps the best example of this expression came when I visited the Wheatfield. I hadn’t been there more than a couple of minutes when a gentleman pulled up in his Cadillac. We stood together for a while, reading the placard which described the action that had occurred on this spot. Eventually, he asked me if I this was my first visit to Gettysburg. I mentioned that it was. That exchange led to an half-hour-long discussion about our mutual travels and feelings about Gettysburg. He said that he had been to most of the Civil War battle sites, but was always drawn back to Gettysburg. "There’s just a sense on this battlefield that doesn’t exist on other Civil War battlefields. There’s a feeling of desperation, of exhaustion, of sadness, and of hard won victory in the ground", he said. “It doesn’t matter how many people are here,” he further stated, “You can always feel it.” I had to agree.

I think a big reason why visitors feel the way they do when they tour the battlefield is because it’s very easy to feel the ghosts of history swirling around. I don’t mean that one actually sees ghosts (although I wouldn’t be surprised if sections of the battlefield are haunted). Instead, I mean that it is very easy to imagine the battle’s scene when one is standing on the battlefield’s various points. Two areas that were very conducive to creating this feeling were the Round Tops and the field where Pickett’s Charge took place. As I mentioned earlier, I hiked the trail to the top of Big Round Top on my second visit. This hill was captured by the famous 20th Maine Division after its heroic stand on Little Round Top. As one would expect, there are several monuments to the 20th Maine at the top of the hill. Unfortunately, the monuments tend to get lost in the substantial foliage that is present. But, I did find that the foliage was very conducive for conjuring up the ghosts of the soldiers hiding behind the hill’s trees and rocks. It was also easy to imagine the fear of not knowing whether the person hiding behind one of the other rocks or trees was a friend or foe.

That spirit was even more present at Little Round Top. This hill was a key position in the battle. If the Union had lost control of this hill (as they almost did), the battle’s result would have probably been different. Perhaps that was why there was definitely a stronger presence of ghosts here than there was on Big Round Top. They could easily be seen in the Devil’s Den, sniping from behind boulders. They could also be seen in the Slaughter Pen, running from rock to rock in a futile attempt to assault Little Round Top. Finally, they could be seen on Little Round Top, looking worriedly at the oncoming Confederate wave. Given all the ghosts of history that were present, it was no surprise that visitors were a little circumspect.

That same presence also permeated the field where Pickett’s Charge took place.  As I'd also mentioned before, Tom and I were able to walk most of the charge during our visit.  But, I took the opportunity on my second visit to walk the rest of the charge.  I started at The Angle (where the charge climaxed). I walked to the Emmitsburg Road and turned around to walk back to The Angle. The charge that was so difficult to image in the darkness was very easy to imagine in the daylight. I felt the sense of history around me, and that I was now part of that history. That feeling only strengthened as I jumped the stone fence at The Angle. I could almost hear the cries of the wounded and smell the scent of gunpowder. Standing there made it was very clear why Gettysburg is so ingrained in the American consciousness.

I think that anyone who goes to Gettysburg understands why Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is such a popular speech. The reason is because Lincoln perfectly described the situation in Gettysburg. To quote from the speech, “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men…who struggled here have consecrated far above our poor power to add or detract.” What’s more amazing is that a visitor can easily sense this consecration’s power in spite of the length of time that has elapsed since the battle. To put it succinctly, I haven’t visited another secular spot that stirred such a powerful response within its visitors. It created enough of a response that I felt compelled to return to Gettysburg two days after I had initially been there in order to complete the experience. While my compulsion may be unique, it was clear from the large number of repeat visitors I met that others feel the emotional connection to those whose dedication created the struggle that made the ground sacred. It may not generate any outward emotional response, but the connection will definitely leave a lasting impression as to the true meaning of sacrifice. As a result, Gettysburg is a “must-stop” for anyone who wants to understand the cost of war, the product of dedication, and the pain of sacrifice.

Having completed my experience to Gettysburg, I was ready to head back to Reading.  It was now about 4 p.m., so the return trip would get me back about 6:30 p.m.  But, as I pulled out onto the highway, I noticed a sign that said “Emmitsburg Maryland – 12 miles”. I decided to make the small detour south just so I could claim I had been in another state. After about 10 minutes of driving, I had crossed the state line and had entered Emmitsburg. My drive around the town had just commenced when I saw a roadsign that said “Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine – 1 Mile.” I was pretty surprised to see the sign, because I had thought that Seton was buried in Baltimore. Since I had no other plans, I decided to investigate.

I pulled up to the shrine to find a large, Mediterranean style church with just hints of Byzantine elements in the decorations. The grounds were landscaped in a way that made the shrine feel like a park. It was clear from the parking spaces for buses and the signs pointing to the various buildings on the grounds that the shrine is geared toward tour groups. I decided to bypass the tourist trappings and head straight for the church.

The church’s entrance leads to a small museum. I was greeted by a sister of the order that runs the shrine. She told me that the shrine was closing in a half-hour, so it might be better if I briefly went through the museum and headed straight to the church. I took her advice. The museum appeared to be a comprehensive, but not terribly inspired, collection of Seton’s personal effects. The museum ended in a gift shop, which only confirmed my suspicions that the shrine was geared toward tourists. I briefly lingered in the gift shop, and then went up a staircase to the basilica.

The stairs led to a small porch. Another sister of the order was standing outside the front door. She gave me a curious look as I went into the basilica, but did nothing to prevent me from entering. Once inside, I took measure of the church’s ornamentation. The church was decorated in a manner that I hadn’t seen at other shrines. A blue-green tone dominated the interior. The color lent a peaceful atmosphere to the sanctuary. Contrasting the color was a magnificent mosaic mural over the altar. I took a moment to absorb the sight. I then noticed a sign pointing to a side altar where St. Seton’s relics are interned. I walked over to the altar. It was a rather ornate structure made of marble and gold. My initial reaction was that I was more taken aback by the altar’s small size than its ornate nature. I realized that I had been use to seeing tomb-sized altars for the saints, and not small boxes holding a few bones. Once I got use to the size, I again noticed the elaborate decorations on the altar. It appeared that the basilica’s designers had decided to build a structure that was befitting the FIRST SAINT FROM THE UNITED STATES, as opposed to a person who turned aside a material lifestyle to embrace a life of poverty. I think I would’ve felt that same old feeling of disappointment that I usually find at similar shrines if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was the only one in the basilica. The quiet of the structure helped generate a feeling of reverence that most likely wouldn’t have existed if there had been throngs of people there. Instead, the only sound I heard was that of the sister who had been guarding the church’s front door. She told me that the shrine was about to close. I said a quick prayer of thanksgiving at St. Seton’s tomb and then departed.

It was pretty clear to me even in my abbreviated visit that the Seton shrine is geared toward (and caters to) large groups of pilgrims. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that the shrines which take this approach usually lose the spiritual character that the person inspiring the shrine practiced in their life. I can’t say for certainty that was the case with the Seton shrine, but it had all of the signs of suffering from this situation. I would like to go back to either confirm or refute my impressions. While those seeking spiritual solace may find it wanting, I think the visitor interested in American history would find it worth their time to visit this shrine. Such a visitor would find an interesting examination of a non-mainstream subject, as well as some of the most stunning interior art of any church in the United States.

With my detour complete, I set off for Reading.  I got back to our hotel room at about 8 p.m.  Tom was waiting there, anxiously awaiting my arrival so that he could get something to eat.  We went down the road to ChiChi's:  a chain Mexican restaurant.  Like most of the other food in Reading, it was mediocre, but filling.  With our stomachs full, we headed back to the hotel room and went to sleep.
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