Gettysburg


A part of Cemetery Ridge on a moonlit night.

I’ve never been here before. Never seen the battlefields or the gravestones. Never stood in the place where Lincoln made his eloquent speech.

But I’ve always wanted to come to Gettysburg, to see this historic place and to feel my feet stepping on the earth that has absorbed so much death.

Lately I’ve wanted to come to try to make sense of what happened. As I watch the anger and bitterness rising between Americans these days, I’m afraid that it may be too late for us to learn history’s lessons.

So here I am, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I came with my husband and two friends. We read the books and watched the movies and documentaries. And now we have toured the battlefields.

The zig-zag fences that stand today look just like the ones that ran across these fields in 1863.

I have been left with so many questions, and so many emotions.

I know that this happened.

But I can’t understand it.

I mean, I know the economic reasons for the war. I understand the political forces.

But I don’t know how actual human beings could have ever believed that it was the right thing to do to murder each other for a political cause.

I stood there on the beautiful hillsides of Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge, where thousands of young Americans faced each other across the green fields, each side waiting for the other to attack.

Gettysburg’s green fields.

I stood on Little Round Top and Big Round Top, and put my hands on the stones and the trees that must have stood there on that terrible day in July of 1863. I thought about the blood that had soaked into that ground. I thought about the trees that had been torn up by mortar fire, and the animals that must have run desperately for safety.

But mostly I thought about all of those young men. All of those boys.

I thought about them dying in the very spot where I stood.

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Gettysburg is a wonderful place to visit. It is so well preserved. It is beautiful. There are great restaurants and little shops and lots of fun ways to tour the site.

You can go to the Visitors Center and tour the museum. You can watch a movie and view a gorgeous 360 degree painting. You will learn a lot and you will have fun.

But you know what?

I wish, so much, that you could see fewer images of the glory of the battle. I wish that you could hear less about the “great deeds of great men” who “alter the course of history.”

I wish that when you go to see Big and Little Roundtop, you would hear less about the courage of the men who ran barefoot and desperate up the slopes, and less about the bravery of those who withstood them.

Here is what I wish you would learn at Gettysburg.

I wish that you, and all of us, would see the faces of the boys who were exhausted, and sick and hungry. I wish that you could hear their thoughts as they huddled in the trees, waiting for death. I wish that you could learn the stories of their wives, grieving and anxious and waiting at home with babies in their arms.

I wish that we could all be encouraged to look at the face of every slaughtered young American, and to think about the mothers and fathers they left behind. To think about the children unborn, and lives never lived, the dreams never known.

I wish that we could all be taught that in the National Cemetery, where a monument to Lincoln and his famous address now stands, there are rows and rows and rows of grave markers. Each of them marked with the tragic word “unknown”.

We should think about how it felt to the wives, the sweethearts, the parents and grandparents, the children of all of those fallen men who were never even identified.

What was the meaning of all of that death? All of that fear and horror and pain and loss?

Couldn’t our national course have been shaped without that violence, without war?

As I watch the news today, in our newly divided and bitter and anger country, I think about Gettysburg.

I wish that the lessons taught there were less about the glory of war and more about the pointless destruction of an entire generation of Americans.