Gettysburg and Its Important Place in Our American Story

Last week I visited Gettysburg and learned what it means when we hear, “the acts of men shaped the fate of a nation…”

Being there on the Gettysburg Battlefield, I understood service and sacrifice to one’s country in a way that I have never understood it before. I could tell you this clarity arose because of the impressive new visitors’ center at Gettysburg, or I could say it was the beautifully restored cyclorama of the three-day battle that inspired my awe (more about that next week), or I could tell you it was the marvelous descriptions provided by the licensed battlefield guide who accompanied our group, but none of those explanations would be adequate.

What gave me chills and put a prayer of gratitude in my heart was overlooking the fields where the fighting took place and thinking of the Union soldiers defended our nation, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a line that stretched for more than a mile along Cemetery Ridge. Despite empty stomachs, inadequate footwear, and wearing scratchy wool uniforms in July–not to mention the fatigue of two years of fighting–those Union soldiers fought to maintain the integrity of the union. They were learning firsthand something that we all too often forget: that the future of freedom is never certain.

Gettysburg did not end the war, as the soldiers had hoped, but this bloodiest of battles where there were almost 47,000 casualties (killed, mortally wounded, wounded and captured) was a turning point that showed the North that General Robert E. Lee might eventually be defeated.

In this decade of the 21st century our conversations about our country are more likely to involve complaints about taxes or fretting about the idiocy of some public officials. Rarely do we stop to think about the benefits of living in a free country where we can think as we please, read what we want, travel unhindered, worship as we choose, and participate in local, state, and federal elections. Two hundred and twenty-two years after the United States Constitution was ratified, we still govern according to the plan spelled out by our Founding Fathers. While societal change is never instant and progress and freedom for all comes in fits and starts, the significance of the Union victory in the Civil War has meant that our democracy and our system of government continue on.

What if the Gettysburg Battlefield Were to Become a Shopping Mall or a Housing Development?
In the last 10-15 years, preservationists and historians have felt a new sense of urgency to insure that Americans will always be able to come to “these hallowed grounds” to remember a vital chapter in our American history. Ironically, we may have the Walt Disney group to thank for a renewed awareness of the importance of our real American heritage. In 1993 The Walt Disney Company began making plans to build an American-history theme park in the northern Virginia Piedmont area, 35 miles from the White House and only 5 miles from the Manassas Battlefield where another important Civil War battle took place.

In a historic civic fight that involved historians, environmentalists, American citizens from many states, and the U.S. Senate, The Disney Company was eventually convinced that their plasticized, animatronic version of American history was not welcome in that neighborhood. As the preservationists heaved an initial sigh of relief, they paused in their efforts for only a moment because they began to notice that with or without Disney, urban sprawl was beginning to mar the land that is an important part of our shared American history.

In 2005, a partnership of public and private groups in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington DC, joined together to form an organization called the Journey through Hallowed Ground, a four-state 180-mile path that stretches from Gettysburg to Monticello with many national parks and historic places to visit along the way. Preservation, conservation, and education are the goals of the group. Their website, http://www.hallowedground.org, offers materials and maps that are available to guide people along the path, whether travelers have a day, a week, or a month to explore the area.

My all-too-short autumn trip only touched on a few of the sites, but I can’t wait to go back, and I urge all Americans to visit as well. When you are on the streets of Gettysburg and see the bullet holes that pockmark numerous homes in the area, then you think about what it would have been like to be a Gettysburg family hiding in the basement of the home, fearing for your life and wondering how it happened that your small town became the center of this massive battle. Or what it must have been like to be one of the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg who eventually came outside when the fighting ended only to realize that your community now had to cope with the aftermath of the bloody battle, including 7,000 dead and 30,000 injured men, awaiting help in all the fields and orchards surrounding the town.

And only if you stand on the ridge where the Union soldiers waited when Lee ordered the Confederates to go forward in Pickett’s Charge, the final battle of the three-day siege that was to give victory to the Union soldiers, can you think of what it must have been to be an American and to be marching on foot in wool uniforms in 87-degree heat on that July day. Your equipment was a gun that fired only about 100 yards, and if you were hurt, there was no medical service to pull you off the battlefield and administer care. You were as likely to die of hunger and thirst as you were to die of your wounds. And you knew that if you were killed, your loved ones would likely never know what happened–where you were, how you were killed, what you wanted them to know before you died.

Despite all this, these men fought on to preserve the Union.

If you should ever forget what makes this country great, take an hour, a day, or a weekend, and visit a location in your state that reminds you of the American story. If we lose our sense of “place,” part of our history is eroded. If we lose our sense of history, we can no longer explain who we are and what we stand for.

Freedom is never certain; it can never be taken for granted. We need to remember that–and the soldiers who have fought for us–every day.

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