Generations that Knew them Not

Late last night, the 19 seminar fellows returned from an intensive four-day excursion southward. On Thursday morning, we piled into a bus (plied with some Dunkin Donuts munchkins, thanks to one of the fellows) and drove first to Carlisle Barracks, PA, for an afternoon of archival research. My favorite thing about the archival research time was that they pre-pulled materials for us AND got us into the research room in record time. My least favorite thing was learning that many of the materials I wanted had simply vanished from the shelves.

We spent Thursday night in Frederick, Maryland, followed by a mixed-up breakfast at the Holiday Inn Holidome: we were under the impression breakfast was free, but learned quickly that it was NOT. So we all coughed up our $3 to $10 (or more – how they figured this, I’ll NEVER know)….only to learn about leaving time that we were getting all of our money refunded (sans tip, of course). That took some time and hassle, but $10 back in my pocket helped pay for lunch and a Confederate soldier cap (part of my staff ride costume for the role of Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg).

Our first stop was Harpers Ferry, a place I visited about two years ago for the first time. This time, we had about 45 minutes of instruction about the significance of the area to the Civil War in particular. Then they let us loose on the town, which basically involved me hiking with some others up to Jefferson’s Rock, then getting an ice cream cone. And that hat, of course.

The next big stop was Antietam, where we spent an afternoon doing the staff ride thing and fending off black flies at one of the final stops. It was an incredible experience, walking along the Bloody Lane and coming to better understand the role the terrain could play in a battle like that. It was also, of course, hot and humid and miserable – but nothing like what the weekend would bring at Gettysburg.

Saturday and Sunday were, in many ways, the culmination of the staff ride portion of this seminar. On Saturday, we did a staff ride of Days 1 and 2 of the battle at Gettysburg (punctuated by lunch at a place one fellow jokingly called “General Li’s Chinese Buffet”). Reliving Day 2 of the battle included a 1.5-mile hike from Confederate Avenue (on the west side of the battlefield) up to the top of Little Round Top. We hiked through the Slaughterpen and past Devil’s Den. We made it through tall grass, ticks, raspberry brambles, swampy ground, and 91 degree heat and sun.

I’ve never done anything quite like it, and it’s an experience I’m not sure I can describe fully. On the one hand, you get a much better understanding of how the experience would have been for soldiers. On the other hand, you still can’t possibly understand – because we’re not fighting for our very lives out there. Still, it ranks up there as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

On Sunday morning – following an evening of good food and good conversation with friends – we capped off the experience by doing Day 3 of the battle. This involved, at its core, recreating Longstreet’s Assault on the Union lines (known more commonly – if slightly in error – as Pickett’s Charge). This also involved trampling through (wet) grasslands where the grass often reached to my chin (and I’m 5’8″). My jeans were mostly soaked before we even began the official maneuvers, and I spent the whole time holding my hands above my head to prevent scratches and bugs.

And yes, we charged the final stage up to the Bloody Angle. Again, an experience like none other.

Fittingly, we ended the staff ride in the cemetery at Gettysburg. You’d think that maybe we’d hear the Gettysburg Address, which had been going through my head all morning. Instead, we heard an excerpt from Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 1889 speech at the dedication of the monument for the 20th Maine:

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

And that is really where it all came together. That’s why we were there – to understand and to “ponder and dream”. And to remember. Our staff ride leader had asked all of us to bring a small pebble with us to the cemetery, and to place our pebble on a grave of our choosing – then to spend a moment in reflection and remembering for that person we never knew.

I’ve seen – and long been aware of – the Jewish custom of leaving stones on grave markers as a means of remembrance. It’s an act I’d never done before, but one I’ve come to respect increasingly. I think it’s a ritual I’ll continue to perform.

In the past two weeks of military history studies, I’ve often been frustrated when I feel like the human element is missing from our seminars and lectures. I appreciated that we ended on a note like this, although I still think there is too much emphasis on tactics and battlefield strategy and not enough on the human/social element of warfare. Ending as we did, in the cemetery, thinking about how we remember our dead and honor them – that seemed most fitting of all. It’s too easy to get lost in the grander levels of strategy and details about weaponry and logistics. At the end of the day, it’s the bivouac of the dead – the long gray line of tombstones – that truly speaks to what happened there.


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