Wednesday, April 25, 2007


The normal tone of my essays is humorous (whether that's apparent or not) - but it is hard to find anything amusing to say about the Civil War battle of Gettysburg.

Mars and I just spent a week studying the conflict at an Elderhostel held at that Central Pennsylvania site. It was also the week during which thirty-two Virginia Tech students and faculty were killed on a day in which there were also seventy-five fatalities in Iraq (according to a fellow Elderhosteler who was staying in touch with one of his favorite political Blogs). The battle of Gettysburg, conducted over the first three days of July 1863, generated about 7,600 deaths and 38,000 other casualties. Ed, Gary and Chuck, our three instructors, justifiably reminded us again and again of that human cost. All in all a pretty somber overtone for an early spring vacation.

We are not Civil War enthusiasts. Mars and I came here to learn a little more about the deadliest conflict in our country's history because we had set up a website for our local historical society on the role of our town in that struggle. It is based upon the research and writing of a now-deceased member. In going through the materials we realized how little we knew about that nineteenth century clash. When our Elderhostel Catalog mentioned a week of study in a location that should be a few weeks ahead of ours in terms of warmth and Spring-ness we signed up, with me at least picturing warm afternoon rambles among the monuments and perhaps a sun-drenched reenactment of Pickett's Charge across the bright green farmland fields of Penn's country.

Then the Nor'easter of Spring 2007 arrived on the scene chilling the air and darkening the skies - along with a constant and then more constant wind that seemed intent on unfastening the various flags that tried to stand at half-staff. (It is some form of sad commentary, perhaps on myself, that I've become so used to seeing the American banner partially lowered that it took a day or two to realize why it was so configured.)

We had been to Gettysburg twice before (1981 and 1982) with our son Bram, who was twelve and then thirteen years of age at the time. On both years we visited the battlefield in early July on daytrips from a Mennonite Farm in nearby Mount Joy, at which we were vacationing. On our current trip Mars and I, having seen a write-up on the now farm/bed and breakfast in the New York Times a few years so ago, decided to revisit it for a few days after the Elderhostel was over.

I don't remember a lot about Gettysburg from the two earlier visits - but I do recall: (a) the intense heat (90) and humidity (90) - ten to fifteen degrees warmer than on the days of the battle, (b) walking on the path of Pickett's Charge led by a young Park Ranger who gesticulated loudly about the "arms and legs flying" as the Northern artillery shells fell onto the advancing Confederates, and (c) "One-legged Sickles".

(a) The weather, as mentioned above, was much colder this time - grossly atypical for this time of year in central PA as evidenced by the dried and shriveled magnolia blossoms that had come to fruition on schedule only to be bushwhacked by winter's guerilla backlash.

(b) We did not replicate Pickett's disastrous parade - although as we stood bundled in our jackets, hats and gloves at the "Copse of Trees" (the popularly touted target of the charge, the "High Water Mark of the Confederacy", and turning point of the battle) we were marched upon by a school group of pre-teens complete with flags, enthusiasm, and rebel yells. Our small group was not able to repulse them, even though we did hold the higher ground. At the Elderhostel we learned that about fifty percent of modern historians now believe that this might not have been the actual goal of the assault but rather a byproduct of several events that pushed the Confederate troops in that direction. The Battle of Gettysburg, due in part to its lack of concrete, conclusive descriptions of what actually happened and partially to our "talk-radio mentality" of arguing-to-death the smallest detail of disagreement, has apparently become something like a board game of alternate theories and strategies providing fodder for endless discussions and dissections of the events - many if not most of them with legitimate historical evidence.

Suffice it to say that once again in 2007, as in the 1860's - the North won the war, there were many instances of everyday courage and extraordinary heroism, and way too many people died in the process.

(c) "One legged Sickles", who had his lower appendage blown off at the battle after apparently deploying his unit in a foolhardy manner, was one of the major luminaries of our five day study, just as he was at our previous Gettysburg trips, and evidently for our son well beyond that time.

Shortly after he graduated from college and moved to Washington DC Bram called to tell us excitedly that he had actually seen the legendary limb at a museum in our nation's capitol. Immediatly after its publication in 2002 he gifted us with a hard copy of "American Scoundrel - The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles". Fortunately, while maintaining an abiding interest in this former Tammany Hall insider, our son shows none of his less than honorable traits.

Sickles seems to be one of those larger-than-life individuals who are so outrageous that if they didn't really exist you would want to invent them. Prior to the war, when he was a congressman from New York, Sickles shot and killed the son of Francis Scott key who was having an affair with his wife - an apparent tit for tat by Mrs. Sickles for her husband's widespread philandering. He was acquitted. Several years after his controversial maneuver at Gettysburg he basically nominated himself for and received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in winning the battle.

Sometimes people or events are just so appalling that all you can do is laugh.

During a couple of the nights at the Elderhostel I awoke wondering what the soldiers attempting to sleep the night before the third day of battle would have been thinking. And if they were able to get their minds to dwell upon something that gave them a moment of peace and maybe even a smile - like I was able to do with my thoughts and memories of "One-legged Sickles".

I hope so.

1 comment:

Sherry said...

Thanks Jim, your words and insight are always appreciated.