Monday, July 23, 2012

What Do You Remember About Your First Visit?

Touring the battlefield at age 15.
Do you remember your first visit to Gettysburg?

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?


  1. Like you, my interest in Gettysburg was sparked by watching the movie & reading Killer Angels (although, for me, it was the movie before the book). That summer my mom told me that I could choose to go wherever Southwest Airline flew. She couldn't hide her shock when I said Baltimore - she thought I would choose Disneyland! But I wanted Baltimore so we could visit Washington DC, and more importantly, Gettysburg.
    Silly me, I was so upset the battlefield was "ruined" with all the roads & monuments (I was only in 6th grade at the time). I too remember the Armistead marker... And being annoyed that there wasn't a cannon right next to it (he was leaning against a cannon wheel in the movie!). But most of all, I remember standing outside of Meade's headquarters and telling my mom that if there was a college in Gettysburg, I would go there & I would my homework right there on the battlefield.
    Seven years later I returned to Gettysburg - this time as a member of the first year class of the College. And that's where I discovered that I had barely scratched the surface of what had taken place in that small rural town and the hills & fields surrounding it. And, of course, that's where I got to experience my first Steve battlefield tour/backstory! :-)

  2. I remember my first visit to Gettysburg in 1990. I had my then wife in tow along with my two kids. I remember how absolutely different the battlefield looked from what I expected. I also had read the Killer Angels but had also read Phanz's Second Day and several other works of non-fiction on the battle. Everything appeared larger than life. Soldiers talked about "seeing the elephant" but truly my first visit to the battlefield was surreal. Little Round Top, which I envisioned as a small grassy knoll was a mountain. The overall size of the battlefield was incredible whereby over the course of the entire weekend visit I don't think I got my bearings straight. We, of course, purchased the audio tour, cassette format, I'm revealing my age, and traversed the battlefield. It was a typical Pennsylvania summer, about 90 degrees. I remember playing airplane with my young daughter and son on the grass in front of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Overall, I had an incredible weekend and fully realized how little I knew of the battle. That was 22 years ago and today I have a small library on just the battle of Gettysburg.

  3. During the summer of 1978 my family traveled to the National Military Park at Gettysburg. The battlefield itself was a bit of a bore initially as endless rock outcroppings and miles of grassy fields failed to capture the imagination of this six year-old boy. On the other hand, the many museums and other attractions we later visited really caught my eye. I clearly remember every sight we saw including the Wax Museum, Robert E. Lee's Headquarters, Jenny Wade's House, the Gettysburg Cyclorama, and of course the National Cemetery where miles and miles of tombstones mark the graves of our fallen brothers in arms. After attending every show and spectacle available, the battlefield took on a whole new meaning and I vividly recall our second tour out to hallowed locations like Seminary Ridge, Little Round Top, High Water Mark, the site of Pickett's Charge and Devil's Den. As our vacation progressed, the tales of these men and the three-day battle in which they participated captivated me like nothing had before, or has since. Over the next few days, I spent every waking minute possible soaking up as much knowledge that a boy my age could. I also soaked up a ton of souvenirs. The following year we returned again and I don't think I ever anticipated a family vacation as much as that one. By then I was a seasoned seven year-old Civil War Buff who had even memorized the Gettysburg Address. "Four score and seven years ago…" This time, I understood where we were and the sacrifice of the men President Lincoln honored in that speech. What had started off as a simple family vacation changed my life forever as Gettysburg left an indefinable impression on me that remains to this very day. Now I live in Fredericksburg, Virginia and the same magic that I experienced in the north now surrounds me in the south. Just as I cannot forget this childhood experience, I cannot forget the men who fought and died so that America could be reborn in unity.