I think it was William Faulkner who wrote something to the effect that for every Southern boy, there is a time in his life when, in his imagination, he finds himself situated on the crest of Seminary Ridge on the morning of July 3rd, 1863. The fatal Pickett’s Charge hadn’t happened yet. Maybe, the South would win this time. It may sound ridiculous to you, but Faulkner was absolutely right. I wouldn’t trade anything for those times during my boyhood when I imagined myself at Gettysburg, doing my best to help win the war for General Lee. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to visit the battlefield until a couple weeks ago. Now that my wife Alexandrea and I travel the country full-time with a golden retriever, a chocolate lab, a banjo, and an Airstream, I can go see whatever I want. (FYI, we manage a travel blog at livingbitesized.com if you are in to that sort of thing.)
I remember when, some years ago, I had a conversation about the 140th anniversary of the battle with a devoted Civil War re-enactor. This particular gentleman, a Carolina lowcountry native, participated in the 140th anniversary re-enactment, and I’ll never forget how he described the re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge. He described multitudes of spectators (which was not as much as the one-million who eventually showed up for the 150th), all interested in this single, transformative event of American history. The most interesting point he made was this: as the re-enactors started up the hill where the Confederates commenced the original attack, spectators began to cry, noticeably and uncontrollably. It’s a simple yet telling point. Even now, among people in this generation, there are those who feel that something went wrong in American history, and Gettysburg had something to do with it. The battle, the war, the loss of life, all still illicit emotion, and rightly so.
During my visit to the battlefield, I spent four days walking through it in detail. I walked the field at Pickett’s Charge three times. Each time I walked that field, I kept asking the question: how did anybody do this? What was it that motivated 12,000 men to charge uphill over open ground, toward an enemy many of them knew they would not, on that day, defeat. I concluded that nothing short of a powerful sense of duty served this purpose. It was just something that had to be done, or at least one should die trying. Historians will often say that ideas of desertion pervaded the Confederate ranks, that some men must have thought “I don’t have to do this.” Maybe so. But they still went. I admire that kind of courage and integrity. Several years ago my Daddy and I had a big disagreement about my future plans. Each night, as I went to bed, I would glance at a portrait of General Lee on my wall and think, I don’t believe the General would too much appreciate my behavior. Again, you may think it ridiculous, but that sense of duty, of doing what’s right, all symbolized in my mind by that portrait of Lee, chastised me more than once.
While standing at what is known as The Angle, the point on Cemetery Ridge where Pickett’s remaining men fought hand to hand with federal troops, one can see much of the battlefield, as well as the Kentucky Fried Chicken and “General Pickett’s Buffet.” The battlefield, like anything else, has become the domain of businessmen interested in little more than monetizing history. Gettysburg itself, the downtown area, is full of cheap tourist traps and odd looking hippie type folk. No one seemed to have a restroom available to the public, and no one cared to talk to us much at all. Let’s just say that I agree with Lewis Grizzard when he said there still exists a great chasm between North and South. They just do things different up there. But, I had to see it. I had to visit Gettysburg, and I’m glad I did.
As one approaches the Gettysburg area, all signs point to the relatively new visitor’s center, financed I’m sure by the American taxpayer. It’s huge. I walked in the thing, took a look around, then walked back out. It’s really pointless. I didn’t care to see the video about freedom narrated by Morgan Freeman, you know, the one that sees the battle as a great success. (I don’t hold with that interpretation.) I didn’t care to buy a cheap copy of the Gettysburg address in the gift shop. And I certainly didn’t see the need of buying an overpriced sandwhich at the official battlefield food bar.
I drove the roads that weave in and out of the battlefield, and I really enjoyed listening to the tour-guides refer to the Confederates as “them” and the federals as “us.” (My Daddy had to correct an unsuspecting tour guide at Fort Sumter some years back for committing the same error.) Such tour guides are really hilarious and pathetic at the same time. If you visit the battlefield, be sure to appreciate it for what it is. For the South, it was not a great success story. It was a story of heartache, loss, and duty. And by the way, the fried chicken at General Pickett’s buffet ain’t half bad, for Yankees.