|Touring the battlefield at age 15.|
I'll have another post on William McKendree Robbins soon, but today I've found myself reflecting on my own interest in the battle. I can't tell you how many times people have asked me some of the following questions: how can you read so many books on one topic? Don't you get bored? Don't you know everything about that yet?
Anyone who has studied the Civil War and the battle of Gettysburg extensively has probably fielded questions of a similar nature at some point in their life, or perhaps all the time. I also get many questions from people interested in visiting Gettysburg - they want to know how long it will take them to see the field. I generally reply somewhat sarcastically that I spent four years there and I needed more time.
The story of Gettysburg has so many layers. I learned long ago that as soon as you think you've uncovered all the secrets of the battlefield, it will surprise you. As soon as you think you know the story of the battle, you will read something new or uncover a source that makes you realize that you'll never know the full story. The battle of Gettysburg happened 149 years ago, and still the meaning and importance of the battle might change with each new book you pick up.
Think back to your first visit to the battlefield. For me, that trip came fourteen years ago, in August of 1998. At the time I had just finished my freshman year of high school, a young fifteen year-old kid with an interest in history. Earlier that spring I read The Killer Angels for the first time. The book hooked me, and soon I found myself reading Gods and Generals and watching the movie Gettysburg.
As a birthday gift that summer, my parents offered to take me to Gettysburg for a few days. I remember going through the museum, and then wanting to get a licensed battlefield guide - a friend of mine had recommended touring the field in this fashion. By the time we got to the counter to ask for a guide, we found that they were booked for the day. Instead, we decided to head out on the driving tour on our own - after all, as my dad pointed out, I was an expert. I had read The Killer Angels and seen the movie.
|Visiting Cemetery Hill in 1998.|
We saw what one would expect to see having based their knowledge off of a fictional novel and a movie based off of a fictional novel. We visited the Buford and Reynolds statues, saw where Reynolds had been killed (by a sharpshooter of course!), and then headed off for Little Round Top and the position of the 20th Maine. Luckily, I knew enough to avoid asking any questions about Buster Kilrain. To cap it off, we spent some time at the Angle, where I mostly remember the Lewis Armistead marker.
Aside from the quick-hits Killer Angels tour, we did manage to attend two interpretive programs on our second day in town - a walking tour of the "High Water Mark" area, and an program at the Peach Orchard, where I learned in detail about Dan Sickles for the first time. The Park Service did their job apparently, because the visit inspired me to read more about the battle. And as I continued my learning after that first visit, I realized that in fact I had a long way to go before I could call myself an expert. In fact, I began to realize that on our visit my parents and I had missed a great deal of the battlefield. We did not even visit Devil's Den, as the Park Service excluded it from the standard driving tour.
And so, I began to lay the groundwork for yet another visit. Two years later, I convinced my parents to return to Gettysburg - this time on a college visit, with a bit of battlefield touring thrown in. A veteran tourist now, I made sure we hired LBG. I sat in the front seat, my parents in the back. For the first time I visited places such as Barlow's Knoll and Devil's Den, and learned heroic stories that did not involve professors from Maine. I left Gettysburg after my second visit with copies of Coddington's Study in Command and Pfanz's The Second Day. More importantly, I left with the hope of returning to Gettysburg for four years of college. My Gettysburg obsession continued to grow.
I spent four years of college there, and spent a great deal of time on the battlefield. Since then, I continue to visit Gettysburg once or twice a year, and have never stopped reading about the battle. And yet, I still find myself having those moments - when I realize how little I still know about this place, and how much fun I can have discovering new stories and new interpretations. Over the years I've continued to pull back more layers to the story.
With Gettysburg, we can study battlefield tactics and strategy. We can also study stories of courage and bravery. But we can learn so much more: memory, commemoration, preservation. The battle of Gettysburg can teach us about the Civil War, while the symbolism of Gettysburg can teach us about Americans in the late 19th century and early 20th century. In fact, Gettysburg's evolving place in our culture continues to inform us about ourselves to this day.
You can study monuments, or changes in the landscape. You can study civilians and architecture. In short, there is no end to the possibilities for learning. As a result, Gettysburg can always surprise even the most knowledgeable scholar.
I think back to that first visit and I marvel at my ignorance, and I wonder if I fully comprehended what I had gotten myself into. What do you remember about your first visit?