Gettysburg in the Spring

Cannon at sunset

A few people have found me by searching on this topic and all I can say is: go go go!! I wish I could go back (I will, just not this year). We went for a couple of days last spring break and it was great.

It was not crowded, except at the visitor’s center at 10:00 but what visitor’s center isn’t crowded at that time? (Maybe Joshua Tree.) We only ate at family-friendly restaurants (read: Perkins) but they had Wilco on the radio…bizarre and exciting for the boys. The locals were nice and very willing to talk to tourists like us.

At Devil's Den

The view up Little Round Top from Devil's Den

And of course there are the battlefields. It’s truly astounding to see the land preserved exactly as it was during the Civil War. Despite how large it is, I still wish the park could buy back more of the area. You go over the hill back toward town and suddenly there’s a curio shop to your left. Not quite authentic, but just part of the beast I suppose.

(I remember driving toward the battlefields one morning and Lady Gaga came on the radio. We discussed how blessed we were that over 10,000 people died here so we could have Lady Gaga. Ah, America.)

I remember how many different places we visited in just a short couple of days. We covered almost the whole battle, and my husband the Civil War Buff was narrating the whole time (I would suggest taking a Civil War Buff with you. Or get the CD tour at the visitor’s center).

On Big Round Top

Can you spy the hawk?

There were forested hills where we climbed to the top and you could look out and imagine the lines advancing. Ghosthunters still come to some of the bloodiest parts of the battle, and I don’t doubt they can find something there. The feeling you get while standing on the fields is palpable.

You can also stand where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address. There are lots of historical sites in the town with preserved buildings that even have cannon balls still lodged in their walls.

Oh wait, there’s a Cyclorama! I’d never heard of these before but they were big in the late 1800s, sort of like a viewing event before there were movies. That in itself is a pretty cool experience.

But do pay the extra for a nice hotel. Ours smelled weirdly like mold (we were trying to figure out if it was the industrial plant nearby) and the hot tub was out of order. Very bad news for parents who promised to go swimming with their kids and needed to warm up after a dip in a tepid “heated” pool.

I’m not sure how I turned tour guide today, but I did. Go to Gettysburg!!! And take a moment to think about why we are still sending young people into war. Please.


Today’s News, and Going to Gettysburg

I’ve got a piece in today’s Hampshire Gazette! But you might have to log in to read it. I’ll post it here in a few weeks, it’s about Little League and all the agony I endure watching it.

Here’s a piece I wrote for them a while back. It’s a little light reading about spring break at Gettysburg.

I am walking across a battlefield of the Civil War. I’m carrying six-year-old Younger on my back, because he is very tired from a long day of sight-seeing. This field was one of the bloodiest spots in the war, and we’ve come to reflect and watch the sunset. As I watch my husband and older son walk along the ridge, it finally all becomes too much for me. I kneel down in the grass, hug Younger, and cry.

A lot of people thought it was strange that we would pick Gettysburg as our spring break destination. Maybe it shows a certain level of nerdiness that we thought it was perfect. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting to teach my sons by going there.

Boys (especially those who’ve never felt a real loss) view war so differently than girls. I was trying to pick out a good Civil War book for us to read together and commented to Older that it might not be the best choice. I thought it was sad because it had a lot of stories about the people who died. In his profoundly direct nine-year-old way he replied, “But isn’t war about people dying?”

For him, it was a simple fact of life that he’d already wrapped his head around. For me, it has always been devastating. I think of a soldier’s parents, siblings, children, spouses. I think of their personal stories and the future that, whether or not they come home “safe,” is irrevocably, tragically altered.

As we talked about the reasons for the Civil War and why the people were fighting, I tried to express these ideas to my sons. People aren’t always fighting for the cause they believe in. Sometimes they fight because they have to, they have no choice. And whether or not the Confederate soldiers really believed in slavery and freedom from Northern oppression, nobody on those fields really wanted to die for the cause. Everyone was terrified.

Older seemed to be getting it. (Younger enjoyed himself but remained more concerned about what time we’d get to the pool and when was the next convenience-store treat?) I think Older really began to understand when I told him that people often say the Civil War was brother against brother. He replied, “That just makes my head want to spin around.”

A statue is more than bronze

Abner Doubleday

So what did I want him to understand? That a statue of a general is more than bronze? It became so clear while we stood on the battlefield realizing what happened right under our feet. As we learned the stories of the men it was easier to understand that the person in the statue had a life and a family. Houses and barns from that battle are still standing, and one had a cannon hole blasted through the wall. I kept asking my husband, where did they go? Did they hide? What did they do when the battle was literally on their front doorstep?

I want my kids to know that America didn’t get where it is today without battles on many levels. No one is ever one hundred percent right, but working cooperatively for something better is the only way to make it work. Someone who throws a tea party in the name of patriotism, but spreads violence and hatred in order to improve our country, doesn’t grasp the true meaning of these concepts.

As I reflected on all these thoughts (while trying to translate them to kid-ese), I kept coming back to community building. The founding fathers tried to build a country. When the country was falling apart, FDR rebuilt it. I look at today’s Recovery & Reinvestment Act signs with the same pride I feel when I come across an old WPA project. While we studied a painting of Pickett’s charge, I told the boys they did it because the country was falling apart. They needed to save it.

The last stop before we left was to visit the spot where Lincoln stood to deliver the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln said, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

What have I done to live up to that? Is living a good life enough? Most importantly, more than any other lesson on this trip, I want my sons to walk away with gratitude. I want them to realize every day that something as simple as a hot shower is a miracle (if you doubt that statement, picture Haiti in your mind). I tried to grasp the unimaginable hardships that happened on those fields but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t picture walking hundreds of miles in blistering heat, no food or shoes, carrying a gun on my back that was intended to kill other people. And I should be grateful every day for those who did it.