The Battle of Gettysburg is in my DNA. About the age of eight my best friend brought to school a handful of postcards which his parents had bought him on a visit to his grandparents. The images were of men dressed in blue and gray uniforms and carrying muzzle-loading rifles at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Little did I realize that my instant attraction to those Civil War Centennial reenactors, however inauthentic (“farbs”) their impressions were, had set me on the course that my life would follow.
As my interest in history grew, Gettysburg always loomed in the background—the subject of hundreds of books, many of which I read, the place we went on family vacations, the streets where my great grandfather had been captured on the first day of the battle, the location of the overwhelming Pennsylvania Monument where another grandfather and several uncle’s names were inscribed. It is a place where I camped as a reenactor on the 125th anniversary and where I was in the line of battle behind General Garnett in the movie Gettysburg.
Men from all the states came in their serried ranks—from Minnesota to Florida, from Maine to Texas—more than 150,000 bent on killing one another in a fury of combat lasting three long and bloody days. At stake was nothing less than the South seeking to “dissolve the political bonds and . . .initiate a new government” and the North willing to die in the hundreds of thousands to prevent that independence. The cost in this battle eventually reached about 46,000 casualties, leaving hundreds of widows across both nations and countless thousands of grieving kinsmen and friends.
It is no wonder the battlefield today is a place of remembrance and memorial stones where the descendants and others come to pay homage to the men who sacrificed for their two countries and to study the detailed minutiae of the grand military display that Providence brought to pass on three July days one hundred fifty years ago.
I have always identified with William Faulkner’s evocative paragraph in the novel “Intruder in the Dust:”
For every Southern boy 14 years old, not once, but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when its still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the wood and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armisted and Wilcox look grave yet its going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a 14 year old boy to think “this time, maybe this time,” with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago. . .
Originally posted July 20, 2013 at The American History Guild