Tuesday, July 6, 2010
4th of July weekend in Gettysburg, PA
My husband and I broke in the new camper with a weekend in the small, and historically significant, Pennsylvania town. On Saturday, we went to the Gettysburg Military History Park, where we watched a film about those three fateful days and toured the museum full of actual relics. Both my husband and I were struck by the size of the uniforms on display, since they all seemed rather small. In several display cases, we found groupings of artifacts from a single soldier; his letters home, his belt buckle, his firearm, etc. What I noticed about many of these correspondences and quotes was the uncynical way both the Union and Confederate soldiers viewed the cause for which they were fighting. They believed in their leaders and they did not express that attitude of the futility of war that is so very fashionable these days.
It was heartening to see how crowded the town was this weekend with families; parents who aren't content to let the public school field trip experience be the only way their children experience this history. There were license plates from all over the country; I met people in the museum from Hawaii and a family from Nebraska on the Observation deck on Conderate lines. What I did not see: packs of tragically hip yuppies, trendy hippies or Obama bumper stickers.
We toured the battlefields two different ways: On Saturday, after our visit to the National Park, we purchased a tour on a double-decker bus that was accompanied by a "dramatization" of the events that occured there via padded headphones. On Sunday, thanks to a group of Ohioans we met a the Dobbins House immediately following the bus tour, we tried a Segway tour that they recommended, which is truly a wonderful way to tour the Battlefield. Not only are the Segways fun to ride, but the pace of the tour is exactly right, the recorded tour guide is knowledgeable and explains exactly where you are and what occured there as you are passing it, and the tour guides are professional, friendly and hospitable: on our several breaks during the two and a half hour tour of the western battlefield, we were offered pastries, fresh cherries and ice cold water. Info on Segtours can be found here.
I don't imagine a town can witness the slaughter of 52,000 soldiers on those gently rolling hills and soon forget, and Gettysburg remembers its history. In fact, despite the potically-correct efforts to cleanse the battle of it's partisanship (T-shirts in the museum shop bear the catch phrase "Gettysburg: Our county's common ground"), there is still a lingering bitterness against the Confederates that is palpable if you are tuned in to it.
The mistakes of the commanders, the bravery of the men and the sheer luck that decided the most consequential battle ever fought is fascinating and humbling. Sometimes, such as in the fight for Little Round Top, it was only a matter of minutes that could have changed the course of the battle, and perhaps the war. The fact that our Union may have just as easily not survived those three days in July in 1863 is a fact that should never be forgotten. And in these days of 2,000 plus word bills and 1 hour plus State of the Union speeches, the simplicity, elegance, and impact of Abraham Lincoln's three paragraph Gettysburg Address cannot be overstated.
I took a major spill while climbing the rocks of the Devil's Den (picture above) and count myself lucky; many of our ancestors did not emerg from this place quite so lucky.
This was our first visit to Gettysburg, but it will certainly not be our last. If you have not visited this gem of American history, make sure to do so soon. And make sure to tour the Battlefield with a knowledgable tour guide. There is a quality auto tour you can purchase at the National Park Museum Bookstore for about $40, but the Segways are a quality option as well. Skip the other museums and hokey touristy things(such as the double decker bus with the "Dramatized" tour). Be sure to climb up Little Round Top and the observation deck on the Rebel lines to take in the full expanse of the battlefield.
But most of all, visit. Remember. And honor the sacrifice of the men who died on those three days in July.