I went to Gettysburg this weekend. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, but not in the usual way. No ancestor of mine fought there; they were all still in the Russian Empire, trying to survive life under the tsars. I am not a re-enactor, nor do I want to be. I am not a Civil War specialist in any way. So here is an explanation. As often the case with me, it involves a book.
Anyone who knows me, or has read one of my own books, or has even read a review of one of my books, will know that I am interested in history. However, military history would be not be included in that. I am very interested in how wartime affects people’s lives, but battles themselves? Not so much. I can’t seem to grasp the logistics of it all and the troop names all sound the same to me.
Then I read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which is about the Battle of Gettysburg. Officially considered a novel, in fact almost of the characters are historical figures and almost all their thoughts and dialogue is taken from their own diaries and letters. It seemed to me an astonishing success at breathing life into old bones, and I was so impressed I immediately wrote my brother. He is well-known historian and one of his specialties is the Civil War. I said Killer Angels was probably not scholarly enough for his interests, but had he ever read it? And how stunned I was by it. And he wrote back that not only had he read it, he had assigned it in his introduction to the Civil War classes.
Ever since, I have wanted to go to Gettysburg. It is about a three-hour drive from where we live, a convenient weekend trip. I am here to say it was definitely worth it. We lucked out and it was beautiful fall weather in rural Pennsylvania.
What I had never grasped, or even imagined, is that it is not a “battlefield.” The battle lasted three days and moved all over the terrain including the town. You can’t walk it in a day and most people either drive on a self-guided tour, bike (!), take a bus tour or hire a guide who will drive and explain and be available for questions.
The fields are full of monuments to the various regiments who fought there. It is a little weird, and at the same time, touching as it illustrates the grief after the battle.
One of the most unusual I saw was a tepee with an Indian, in memory of the fallen of 42nd New York, nicknamed the Tammany regiment and place by Tammany Hall. Yes, it’s a portrait of Chief Tammany, for whom the society was named. (If you click on the photo, it enlarges to a more interesting picture).
There is a visitors’ center with a museum, an excellent introductory film and a cyclorama of the battle. That is, as I learned there, a gigantic circular painting of the battle. The audience stands in the middle and a sound and light show duplicates the battle field experience. I think you have to be there to get the cyclorama!
All in all, the history geek in my family ( me) was glad we went, and even the non-history geek ( my husband) admitted that it was an interesting day. If you have any interest, I recommend the trip and would be happy to share information. I’d suggest making it two days…and avoid parent’s Weekend at Gettysburg College!
One final thought. Mystery writers are strange people. Because when we arrived and I saw the sign stating the park is closed between 7 PM and 8 AM, I immediately thought”What if…? What if some teenagers sneak in, on a dare? And find something? Or someone finds them? Or there are ghosts? If any place is haunted, this place is. Or…?” Put up your hand if you have had similar moments!