I love celebrating a landmark date in time, but I prefer to dodge the crowds that follow the course of history. It’s the sesquicentennial of the Civil War’s greatest battles, not just this year, but last year and next year and all of the early teens of this century. As a nation, we celebrate each of the two hundred seventy-two words that President Abraham Lincoln spoke in remembrance of the more than fifty thousand people who fell victim to the shelling and shooting across the Pennsylvania acreage. On average, each word represents one hundred eighty-eight soldiers who fell upon the hallowed ground of Gettysburg. In fact, even the current population of the Adams county seat could multiply by six times and still not equal that number of soldiers who fell on the battlefield between July 1 through 3, 1863. The small town grew twenty times its size during the conflict and forty times its size during the 150th commemoration of the event.
For me, I do not do well with crowds of that size. Not that I mind Generals McClellan and Lee showing up with the number of troops they did, but to soak in the solemnity of the massive tragedy and the scale of despair during this year’s memorial of the circumstances of the bloodiest battle on American soil, I wanted solitude, tranquility, and silence. No doubt, so do many others, but thousands of Civil War reenactors stomp across the Peach Orchard, across the Emmitsburg Road, and across the High Water Mark with cannon fire recreating the smoky haze of the original fog of war. Plus the throngs of historical tourists raise the amount of congestion, the price of hotel rooms, and the wait times at every viewpoint, vista, and vantage point around the battlefield. I just see the experience (and want to see the experience) differently.
When I plan to visit Gettysburg National Battlefield, I keep in mind my financial parameters and patience for mobs, both of which are low. My first decision, besides the desire to just be there in person, keeps me away from the key reenactment weekends on either side of the sesquicentennial. In so doing, I meet the expectation of obtaining a reasonable rate at nearby lodging. I arrive on Monday and depart on Wednesday and spend from just after sunrise to just after sunset exploring nearly every crevice of the terrain. Mother Nature understands my expectations for an ideal experience and keeps enough clouds in the sky to keep me cool, yet holds off on the afternoon rain shower until I am tucked inside the Visitor’s Center for a late lunch. I subsequently miss the packs of bikers who will arrive on Thursday, and the sequester that impacts the National Park System allows a reprieve at the numerically date-significant site. I did it, though, I dodged them all.
With all of the stressful factors out of my scope, I absorb every moment on the battlefield. I feel the wind dabbing at my face as I survey the opposing battle lines across the grassy horizon. I envision thousands of men shoulder to shoulder approaching, sweating, in the sweltering summer sun, and how blessed I am to be standing in the shade of passing clouds. As I climb the paved hill towards Little Round Top, I imagine how the nearly exhausted soldiers from Alabama climbed and clamored over boulders as gunfire rained down upon them after marching through the night and into the morning to meet their deaths on the Union left flank. As the glow of sunset streams through the broken clouds, I wonder how the cannon fire illuminated ahead of the infantry fighting for each step forward, forcing them backwards, or worse, into broken, shredded casualties. And in the quiet of the crowds I successfully dodge, I imagine the crying, screaming, and moaning of the dying men strewn in all directions, because I don’t want to remember how hard it was for me to navigate these fields, but how hard it was for them to survive them.