Sunday, June 26, 2005

A Vision Place of Souls

Several years ago after finishing my first book on the Civil War, despite the six-hour round trip, I decided that I needed to see one of the sites where these events took place. Having read about one battle, I could picture the conflict's beginning, the fighting on the second day, and the final, ultimately doomed assault. I had in my mind a vision of those terrible struggles. To form this vision, I needed only to recreate this world, 140 years distant, that the author had so vividly painted. I held certain that he could not have missed a detail, no subtle nuance and no deafening boom. The sulfurous smell of gunpowder, the mind numbing roar of the cannons, the fear and exhilaration of battle, the decisions made by commanders and by others who would lead by example if not by position, all emerged from the pages. Each filled in a number on the mental canvas as the picture formed.

Venturing out to the fields was not a necessity. The conjured images were vivid, powerful and alive, complete with the needed details and facts. But something yet unidentified remained elusively absent. Not sure what I would find, I drove to this sacred place. Following the brown park signs to the Visitor's Center, I noticed a few weather worn monuments along the rolling country road, peppered with a cannon or two here and there. The granite carving in a restaurant's driveway looked interesting if not overly impressive. The marker noting past deeds in a homeowner's front yard seemed an oddly placed curiosity but not much more.

Relieved at successfully finding the parking area, now came the question of what exactly to do or where to go. Looking around with some confusion at the unfamiliar setting, I thought of walking up the hill to the Visitor's Center, a common enough looking building which held the promise of dioramas and other routine displays, but at least a map or two for a first time guest. Taking in the surroundings, my eyes caught a glimpse of the southwestern corner of the lot, a lighter open area beyond, and a few more monuments. That must be the direction to go.

Walking along what I later discovered was Cemetery Ridge, an impressive row of numerous monuments welcomed me, announcing my official arrival on the Battlefield at Gettysburg. Each had a regimental designation, a list of casualties, and odd seemingly out-of-place symbols such as three leaf clovers, crescent moons, and circles. Moving along the hot macadam surface, I took pictures of the monuments, despite my uncertainty of their significance, and progressed south along the ridge. Still unsure of my location and wondering what all this meant, the reassuring presence of the monuments at least left me satisfied of my presence in the right place.

Then I saw it. Likely the least impressive of the adornments, it none the less made my heart stop. The National Park Service marker calmly noted that I stood near the Confederate High Water mark. Another marker, lower to the ground, clarified that I had stumbled upon the focal point of the Pickett / Pettigrew Charge. Raising my head to look in the direction noted by the map, my eyes widened in shocked amazement. I knew the story. But it no longer seemed to fit so clearly. According to the NPS interpretive display, across the nearly mile long stretch of open fields to my front, 12,500 Confederates marched into massed guns, ferocious artillery, and historical immortality. Reading about what occurred on that day, July 3, 1863, did not prepare me for this sight. Standing behind the low stone wall that sheltered the men in blue, I stared without blinking across the rolling fields in awestruck amazement.

Questions swirled. How could they have done this? What could have possessed these men to do what must have seemed unthinkable? Each man in butternut or gray had to find the courage to stand in line and march forward across these open grounds into the malevolent hailstorm of deadly lead and iron. Each man in blue would have to hold his ground as he watched the many times victorious Army of Northern Virginia irresistibly swell towards them. With one glance over these now peacefully serene fields, I began to sense the enormity of what happened here. I began to understand.

Needing now to see more, I visited as many other battlefields as time and expense would allow. The experiences mirrored this. Nothing compares to the feeling of walking on the Old Mountain Road where men of the Southern Army mistakenly shot Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson or of silently standing in the room at Guinea Station where Jackson's time on this earth would end. Like Cemetery Ridge, today the curious can still stand at the Bloody Angle in Spotsylvania or walk the path out of the woods at Manassas where Stonewall Jackson emerged to join the battle and earn his name. Anyone can walk the same grounds in the Wilderness where General Lee thought to personally lead his men forward while his brave Texans demanded he go to the rear.

Sadly though, no one can stand behind the stone wall below Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg and truly understand the sacrifice of thousands of Union soldiers. Knowing all too well the danger, they did their duty. Brigades of men in blue battered themselves against a Confederate wall of lead which denied them the victory at the stone wall beyond. The fields are gone. Only a small section of the wall remains. Never again will anyone peer out over the fields below the wall and completely fathom the valor required to brave those charges. Eager enthusiasts find other fields equally threatened. Encroaching development and the ever-increasing rush of traffic threaten the Manassas Battlefield. Chancellorsville continues to fight to hold back the tide of building and "progress" as well. While the National Park Service progresses with restoring the Gettysburg Battlefield to its 1863 appearance, hard-hearted investors seek to cash in on the brand name and bring casinos to the area.

These are some of the most well known and cherished battlefields from the United States' shared past. That even these hallowed grounds are threatened speaks to the fate of lesser known but equally important historic fields. Many of these fields are simply gone.

By studying our history, we discover who we are and how we came to the place we currently occupy. More importantly, we learn what we can yet be. Without the courage to preserve such places for our generation and those yet to come, true understanding of the men who made this nation and of why we went to war with ourselves will remain elusively out of reach.

Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain understood. Over a century ago, considering those who would come, at the dedication of the monument to the 20th Maine at Gettysburg, he spoke these words. "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."

For more information on battlefield preservation, please visit the Preservation of Battlefields section of my web site.



All original material Copyright © 2005. All Rights Reserved


Anonymous said...

You write beautifully. After moving to Gettysburg last April, I continued working in the DC area until July. When i retired, my sister came to visit and we decided to drive through the battlefield late in the evening. I will never forget the first time I saw the view from Little Roundtop. We walked from the parking lot watching our footing in the dim light. As we walked up the steps through the trees, we suddenly looked up from the pathway and we both caught our breath and reached for the other at the same instant. For through the opening in the trees, we viewed the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen. We were overcome with the beauty and as we walked out onto the open area, and further out onto the boulders, we just sat together and watched the sun close out the day. Thank you for your writings. I have family that have young children that will be visiting. Is there a website the children can visit to prepare for coming to Gettysburg? Linda Perkins

Randy said...

Thank you very much Linda. Having had similar experiences myself, I can say that there are few places as breathtakingly beautiful as Little Round Top, especially at sunset. It's a fitting memorial to the men who sacrificed all on those grounds.

As for a web site for children, the National Park Service has a site they call their Civil War Page For Kids!.

Hopefully you'll find that useful.

I wish you the best and many more beautiful sunsets to come.



Dee Mandolese said...

Incredibly well written, I don't need to see Jeff's paintings to know and feel what and how he paints with the way this article was written. Eloquent, deep and rich with descriptive words that make you want to go back in time. Please keep up with great writing and intrucing such talent to our lives.