I am a huge history nerd, as well as a huge planner. An extreme planner. If I am going to travel, I first do web research. Then I get a guidebook and an ancillary guidebook or three. I usually pick up an additional historical account, and maybe a biography… and a map, oh, and some pamphlets. My visit is planned, timed, analyzed and reconfigured. I know the must-see highlights, as well as some little known, hidden gem add-ons most visitors miss.
Although my elder son and I do not share many, if any, outward similarities, we do share history wonkiness, obsessive/compulsive planning tendencies and slightly quirky personalities. Sharing the trait of almost militarized sightseeing can cause some head butting, but I usually accede to his superior intelligence and youth. On visits to his new and perfectly suited hometown, Washington, D.C., he plans all activities. He also enjoys the power of keeping such activities secret until necessity outs the destination, mostly because it drives me just a tad batty. I need to plan!
This surprise tour was Gettysburg. Son 1 let us know the night before, so I only had time for some brief internet research. I didn’t even have my well used, dog-eared Pennsylvania guidebook with me! My innate knowledge of Gettysburg was sparse. I did know the gist of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, and can weirdly still recite the preamble in Spanish, which I learned in eighth grade. I knew it was a bloody battle, and an important one. The end. I felt simply naked, not having my usual research, knowledge and paperwork to sheathe me.
The drive from D.C. to Gettysburg is surprisingly pretty, with winding roads through rolling hills, heightened by a fog gently lifting off of the Potomac. The traffic was almost bearable, as it was early Saturday morning. The trip is about and hour and a half, an hour forty-five if you add a well-needed coffee and rest stop not on the official travel agenda. Bonus: It will certainly get your type A tour guide to roll his eyes and harrumph a bit.
The Gettysburg Military Museum itself is large and impressive. We did an abbreviated rush through on the exhibits as our ticketed movie presentation was at noon sharp! A quick diversion to see the large diorama of the last battle, then off to the gift shop to buy… an audio tour of the Gettysburg battle sites. Son 1 had researched (of course he had!) and knew to choose the “official” version narrated by a well-known park tour guide. CD plopped into place and off we go for a three-hour tour. (No, don’t get distracted and start thinking about Gilligan’s Island.)
The area is mesmerizing, awe-inspiring, it seems somehow holy. You feel the presence of the soldiers, or their ghosts. As the narration paints a picture, you can almost see the men (boys!) bravely climbing hills and grimly facing brother vs. brother deadly clashes. The tour winds around the sites of all the major battles, including the deadliest encounter, on Round Hill, as well as and the final defeat of Lee’s troops on Cemetery Ridge. We learned anecdotes about leaders, and brave side stories of individual courage and valor. At each site there are monuments and plaques, but I think without the narration, you would be less informed and therefore less moved by the sacrifices made on these grounds. Many families were touring, taking happy, smiling pictures of themselves and their children in front of cannons, or climbing on statues and memorials. It felt, to me, a bit disrespectful, but then again this is what our ancestors were fighting for: freedom and family.
There is one section of the battlefield called Devil’s Den. Here many children (and adults) were climbing the boulders, picnicking and frolicking. One teenage girl was lying on top of a flat boulder, busily fluffing her hair and taking multiple selfies to get just the right pic. Devil’s Den, at the foot of Round Hill, is in the area where the heaviest casualties occurred (and where many of the famous, heart-wrenching pictures of the dead were captured). Many wounded and dead were left for days in this very spot, before they could be either treated or buried. 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing at Gettysburg, more than the total numbers in the Vietnam War. A Civil War soldier had a one in four chance of being killed during this war. In my ancestry, there were approximately 160 Corrells fighting for the Union during the Civil War, 75 for the Confederacy. It is very possible that this girl was lying on the exact spot where a dying soldier lay. I am trying to become a kinder and less judgmental person (a daily struggle I often lose!) so it gave me some comfort to remember that most of these soldiers were actually boys, and would probably be pleased to have a pretty girl lie down by their side to comfort them.
We only took a couple of pictures of Gettysburg; we seldom remember or want to document our travels in this way. It is more the experience, being in the present while exploring the past. I look around and see so many visitors busily taking photos, selfies, and playing on their phones, when an amazing opportunity to learn, feel and share with others is right in front of their buried noses. It’s a shame, and don’t be surprised that in fifty years, we all spell “you” “u” and have completely forgotten the art of writing, conversation and enjoying the moment.