Friday, July 14, 2006
We ended our family vacation driving into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, my daughters complaining about visiting another museum. Not sure why I was drawn to the little town, where a three-day battle in July, 1863 became the turning point in the Civil War.
Americans North and South were surprised the war was dragging on for so long. What’s more winnable than a war for states rights, said the South? For human rights, said the North? Young men geared up with fire in their eyes, Bibles in their belts, and two arms and two legs apiece. It was supposed to be over in a month or two.
Instead, the war dragged on for 4 years as the larger, more technologically advanced Union Army was kept on the defensive by the clever hit-and-run tactics of the smaller but more aggressive Army of Northern Virginia.
We checked into our Gettysburg motel, greeted by a Mideastern family at the desk. The next morning, jogging out along Confederate Road, I passed monument after monument marking the encampments of each state’s infantry and artillery brigades. Two armies camped out in the same woods, so close they drew their water from the same spring. Chance encounters had drawn a wink and a brotherly finger: “See you in hell, Billy Yank.” “See you in hell, Johnny Reb.”
The Battle of principles-to-die-for is now history. 53,000 casualties, equal corpses in the fields and equal piles of limbs outside the surgical tents. A victory for the North only because the South had fewer men to lose.
Lee’s army retreated the next day, July 4th. A perfect day for Union soldiers to celebrate mission accomplished. But there was no celebration. Just hard rain and a whole lot of muddy grave digging. Four months later, Abraham Lincoln rode to Gettysburg to dedicate the national cemetery there. Oddly, no congratulations from the president either. Lincoln stood, talked for 2 minutes, and sat down to silence. He thought the crowd was displeased with his Gettysburg Address.
You’d sit down too, out there. Because of all the grand monuments to glory on the battlefield, it’s the little ones in the cemetery that get to you. Ohio: 131 markers. Pennsylvania: 526. New York: 866. Unknown, 143. Unknown: 411. Unknown: 425. And 3300 confederate dead, dug up and moved back south later on.
I drove my family out of the Gettysburg battlefield at dusk. Grateful, for an undivided nation. Sad, that it’s still easier to perceive our enemies, than our brothers. Convicted: that anyone with plans to send youth to war based on principle and personal faith better first spend time on their knees, in a battlefield cemetery, and beg for a more creative idea.
Then my daughter said, “Hey dad, look.” Outside the car window, in the tree line, a tiny yellow-green light glowed on and off. Then others rose up on the fencerow, and signaled. Up the ridge, on the Union side, more lights. Hundreds of…fireflies. Then a thousand, rising out of the wheat field.
I pulled over onto the shoulder of Emmitsburg Road, the very one Pickett’s brigade had crossed during their charge up Cemetery Ridge. We turned off the headlights and watched spellbound, as light after light twinkled all around us. And I could almost hear the conversations going on out there:
“See you in hell, Billy Yank.”
“See you in hell, Johnny Reb.”