Out East Road Trip Day 6: Gettysburg, PA

I expected Gettysburg to look like a battlefield.  To be wide open, possibly filled with uniformed reenactors, and flanked on all sides by tourists with lens-heavy Canons.  And strewn with Civil War bullets, just waiting to be spotted by a sharp-eyed speculator like myself.

More subtle than my imaginings, Gettysburg is a town in Pennsylvania.  Before the battle, it was small.  It contained shops, a seminary, and a few brick houses with porches protruding into thick hydrangeas.  It was a town dissected by roads running from every direction.  These roads made it attractive to both the Union and Confederate armies:  Supplies and men could be brought in easily.  But there was never meant to be a battle, our guide explained.  And somehow it ended up being the bloodiest of all.

Outside of town, the ground slopes up and down softly.  There are hills with familiar names.  I remember my middle school history teacher reciting them to us: Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill.  Between the hills and the advantages they provided to those upon them, are other battle landmarks.  The peach orchard.  The wheat field, which switched occupants–from Northerners to Southerners and back again–four times in one hour.  The boulder-studded field that Pickett’s forces charged across, headed for the clump of trees upon the ridge and the perceived weakness in the Union line.  Wooden fences and rock walls (leftover from some long-ago farmer’s plowing) border fields.  The wooden fences are not original, but are built, so we were told, on the same spots they once occupied.  The crops, too, are in the process of being planted in their pre-battle places.  The peach trees are young.

DSCN3041

The only bits of modernity which have been left alone by the National Park Service are the monuments.  A few decades after the war, veterans returned to the battle site to explain to researchers what had happened where.  And to dedicate monuments to their brave regiments, to their commanding officers.  States built monuments too, so that scattered throughout almost all of Gettysburg are marble pillars and metal statues.  Most northern states are represented, but–unsurprisingly, given the location of the battlefield, the outcome of the battle, and the outcome of the war–there are fewer monuments from southern states.

DSCN3048

In order to know what we were looking at, we went to the Visitors’ Center first.  It boasts a brief film narrated by Morgan Freeman, a museum packed with artifacts, and something called the Cyclorama.  Mom and I decided that the Cyclorama must be a ride of sorts, and spent the first part of the presentation waiting for the floor to move.  It didn’t, but the room-sized, cylindrical painting depicting the entire battle of Gettysburg was impressive.

IMG_1424

Later in the afternoon, we took a bus tour led by a licensed guide.  That’s a federally licensed guide: apparently when Civil War veterans went back to visit the battlefields, they were appalled by the inaccuracies spread by unofficial tour guides.  The veterans managed to pass a bill requiring those who give paid tours in National Military Parks to obtain licenses first.  The process for getting such a license is grueling: application, written exam, training seminar, and oral examination.  It was a good decision to take the bus tour.  Undoubtedly as a result of his extensive testing, our guide was able to go into great detail regarding the battle.  Using landmarks, he explained to us how far the lines of troops extended, where different regiments were stationed, and how both sides moved on each of the three days of the battle.  I typically don’t care much about military tactics, but it was fascinating to learn about the struggle for high ground and the usefulness of the roads and the town.

DSCN3031

Most interesting to me was the aftermath.  Once both sides had moved out–the Confederates first and then the Yankees “in cautious pursuit”–the town was entirely altered.  Wounded men, most of whom were already or would shortly become amputees, filled all corners of nearly every building in town.  Trees and homes were pocked with bullet marks or decimated from cannon fire.  Crops were trampled.  Bodies choked the land for miles.  One witness reported that on July 4th, 1863–the day after the battle ended–one could walk from one end of the wheat field to another without touching the ground.  The dead were buried in shallow graves, many to be uncovered by heavy rainfall.  Horses were considered too difficult to bury, and so most were piled and burned.  Even four months after Gettysburg, when President Lincoln arrived to dedicate the cemetery and deliver his Gettysburg Address, audience members reported feeling nauseous from the lingering stench of death.

DSCN3044

It was a haunting place to visit, more so because it doesn’t look at all as you’d expect the site of 51,000 deaths to look.

DSCN3036

War Novels

1/2 cup oats, 1/2 cup skim, dash of vanilla (I don’t know that the vanilla adds much flavor, but it’s fun to put in), small spoon of brown sugar, and many, many frozen berries.  Nuke for 2.5 minutes, and then add a spoon of peanut butter on top.

The food bloggers tell me the peanut butter is for protein, but I mostly like the way it melts and puddles over the entire bowl.  And yes, this oatmeal does keep me full for a good four hours.  I could likely run a triathlon on this oatmeal (given I had teammates to do the swimming and biking (Mom??)).

I’m eating said bowl of power oatmeal on our front porch, watching the heat creep up in shimmering waves.  It never did storm last night, despite my dramatics.

Both of my grandfathers served in WWII, but I don’t personally know anyone who has died serving their country.  I know I’m lucky in that regard, and this fine Memorial Day, I’m feeling extremely grateful to all of the American men and women who have served and lost their lives as a result.  Sitting legs crossed, oatmeal bowl propped against Mac, it’s hard for me to imagine ever doing anything that brave.  Mostly, I suppose I like to read about acts of heroism, real or fictional.

Here’s a list of war books I’ve read and enjoyed (as much as one can enjoy such a book):

1.  The Book Thief.  Friends, I don’t know that you’ve been lucky enough to listen to one of my rants concerning this book.  It’s easily the book I most often recommend to other people.  The force of my recommendations have even tended toward the creepy.  Think slipping a copy into someone’s house via cat flap.  It’s that good.  It’s about a girl who steals books against a Nazi Germany backdrop.  Simple enough, but when you consider that the book is narrated by death, and that the format of the book is perhaps one of the most unusual and most poignant you’ve ever come across, you realize that the magnitude of the story is much greater than you initially thought.  Ignore the fact that the book is shelved under “young adult.”  It should be shelved under “everyone.”

2. All Quiet on the Western Front.  This was one of the books we discussed in my “Atrocity and Modernism” literature class.  I took the class while studying abroad in Salzburg last fall.  It’s the story of a group of German friends who are pushed to war by their parents, and by their schoolteacher because war is viewed as a glorious, noble venture.  The young men quickly realize that the glories of war are far overshadowed by the traumas, by the tragedies, and by one’s inability to ever go back to one’s prewar life.  This book was gathered and burned in Nazi Germany for depicting war in a negative fashion.

3. The Red Badge of Courage.  I hated this book when I was forced to read it in 8th grade.  The only thing I liked was that we got to choose scenes to act out and film.  I remember staggering about the schoolyard, pretending to be a shot and delirious Jim: “No-no-don’t tech me-leave me be-leave me be.”  As 8th graders will, we seemed to have more bloopers than actual solemn footage in our video.  It was shocking, when, three years later, I was assigned the book in an American literature class.  It was devastating when, saturated in the newness of college, I was assigned the same old book my freshman year.  Admittedly, I grew to like it a little bit, mostly because the protagonist, Henry, is so darned relatable.  He’s stuttering, he’s scared, he’s desperate for glory but not brave enough to grasp it.  He thinks, in short, the way I’m sure many, many Civil War soldiers thought.

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls.  This is the first (and last, at this point) Hemingway I ever picked up of my own power.  It was a struggle at times, but it’s difficult, as much as I sometimes want to, to dislike Hemingway.  He has an economy of words that is truly admirable.  And what’s even more admirable, the story doesn’t suffer for lack of telling.  Placed during the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls depicts American dynamiter Robert Jordan’s quest to blow up an enemy bridge.

5. The English Patient.  I read this book long before seeing the movie, and although the two are entirely different in form, the basic feel is the same.  They are about a badly burned and dying man who is taken care of by a Canadian nurse in an Italian villa.  Also living in the villa is a mysterious thief who claims connection to the patient, and an Indian who’s job it is to defuse the hundreds of mines embedded in the surrounding countryside.  The story is a twisting series of flashbacks that reveal the characters’ roles on the Northern African World War II front.  It’s a lovely heartbreaking story, and for once, I think I can recommend both book and the film equally.

6. John Adams.  Another book I’ll recommend until I’m blue in the face.  Yes,  it’s technically a life-spanning biography, and not a war novel, but as John Adams played such a large role in the American Revolution (the instigation of, and the recovery from), and since so much of the book deals with said Revolution, I’m happily including it here.  Best biography I’ve ever read.  Hands down.  If you know who David McCullough is, I’m sure you know why: The extent of his research is enormous, and he arranges it masterfully so that the book reads not only as a chain of life-defining events, but as a thorough character study.  With this biography, I am converted; John Adams will forever remain my favorite Founding Father.  Because despite his  learning, his admirable sense of justice, and his ever-expanding ambition, Adams could be pompous, foolish, and stubborn.  He knew it, too.

7.  Gone With the Wind.  Everyone should read this at least once in their lives.  I think it’s expected that the novel is sentimental, telling of the terribly beautiful Scarlett O’Hara and her 1000-page-long pining for the married Ashley Wilkes (while all readers root for Rhett Butler instead).  What’s unexpected is how accurate a portrayal of the Civil War it is.  No history class I’ve ever taken has done better.  Battles are described in desperate fury, and even more memorably, the destruction of the South is depicted from a Southern point of view.

8.  Little Women.  I’ve read this book once a year since I was in third grade.  So I’m at about thirteen reads.  This is another novel that isn’t quite a war novel, but that concerns war enough for me to include it here. Little Women  is about four girls growing up during the Civil War: their struggles, their triumphs, their first dealings with wealth and love and adulthood.  Despite my thirteen readings, I seem to find some new bit of commentary every time I read through.

9.  Atonement.  I was really going to stop at 8, but then I remembered Atonement.  It’s about a lie told when one is a child, and how that lie comes to haunt people, and to impact their lives for years to come.  Written by the always good Ian McEwan, this book is on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Novels.  It deals with WWII, both the fighting and the nursing parts of it.  Warning: the ending will rip your heart out, but it’s very, very worth the read.