A pilgrimage back to the battlefields of Gettysburg
By Gretchen A. Peck
Growing up in a then-small town in mid-state Maryland, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania always beckoned from the north. As 5th-graders, we’d travel to Camp Round Top for a standard-curriculum introduction to cabin life and campfire songs. Those who could afford it trekked up to places like Seven Springs for high-school ski trips. Towns like York and Reading appealed to our parents for stuff like farm-fresh canned goods and outlet shopping. It was rare to venture far enough east or west to get a taste of the big cities in Pennsylvania. I didn’t see Pittsburgh until I was well into my 40s, and Philadelphia eluded me until I was in college and in control of my own journeys.
Though it felt like an epic adventure back then—through the wide-eyed but impatient eyes of a child — Gettysburg was an easy day-trip destination for parents and teachers who wanted to leverage some pretty remarkable local history. As a kid, I went there twice. Both times are etched in my memory still — one a fond trip; the other, a not-so-fond trip involving a banana-seated bicycle and a flashy Mercedes-Benz.
The fonder of those two trips was with my main pal, my great-grandmother, Ruth. She was always rather independent and still felt comfortable behind the wheel of one those iron-horse American-made cars and station wagons she used to drive. I can’t be certain if she pitched the idea of a day trip to Gettysburg because she was intrigued by the history herself, or if she was just looking for a way to keep a precocious kid occupied for a span of time, but northward we went to the battlefields of Gettysburg.
I knew about Gettysburg’s history, probably because I’d read about it independently. I was a voracious, above-grade reader with an affinity for history and historic fiction. I don’t know what I expected of the battlefields there, which I knew to have claimed the lives of thousands of men, but as we drove Gettysburg’s rolling hills and past its stacked stone walls, I found them to be just pretty countryside, but otherwise unremarkable. It was hard to imagine them littered with the bodies of dead and dying soldiers. Then again, it was hard to imagine fellow countrymen turning on one another at all. It didn’t sit well with me then, as a child, and doesn’t now.
At the museum commemorating the pivotal battle, there was an interactive display — what they refer to as a cyclorama — a painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux that offers a 360-degree depiction of the battleground’s horrors and the spoils of war. The artist shied not away from the gore, and viewing the battlefield like that helped me to imagine what those bucolic fields looked like in July 1863. I spun around, taking it all in, aghast at the blood and carnage.
There was another artifact from the museum that I thought I remembered so vividly—an old wooden table used as a makeshift operating table. As a child, I stared in horror at the rough-blade saws they used for amputation with little to soothe the wounded soldiers. The table had what appeared to be a stain, and I gasped at the thought that no one had thought to wipe away the blood before putting it on display.
Before we headed for home, my great-grandmother bought me a fold-out miniature depiction of the cyclorama, on glossy postcard stock. I unfolded it on my lap and studied it the whole way home.
I was in my 40s when I went back to Gettysburg on a cold misty-mountain day, the end of a brief but cathartic pilgrimage back to where I began. Decidedly middle-aged by then, I had new perspective on childhood homes and places of significance around my hometown. I toured it with my parents, and we spoke of memories, avoiding the hardest ones. After the visit, I packed my truck and headed north toward home in Pennsylvania. I toyed with the idea of stopping in Gettysburg, but it was threatening to rain and I kept that in the back of my mind as an excuse not to make the pitstop.
But something compelled me to retrace the steps my great-grandmother and I had walked together decades before.
I thought of her as I bought my ticket, and wandered through the exhibits. She felt beside me as I ascended the long escalator to the theater-in-the-round where they cyclorama painting is on display. I could practically hear her laughter when I walked up to the display of the operating table to see that the “stain” I’d remembered was most likely just the natural grain of the wood and some wear and tear — the blood I’d conjured were just a child’s imagination run amok.
I brushed by families and stood by myself reading the plaques and watching the video clips throughout the exhibit. I thought about the toxicity of politics, how it inherently divides up the nation into neat little categories, largely based on where and to whom we’re born. I thought of the barbarism of the war, the hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye combat, an intimate, personal war waged among neighbors and families and fellow countrymen.
It seemed to me then, even as a child, a wholly absurd notion. I felt men were to blame and women had to suffer their consequences. Now that members of Congress like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) openly flirt with the idea of civil war, like it’s the stuff of romantic nostalgia, I can no longer blame the barbarism on men alone. I do imagine that the civil war the Congresswoman pines for will not be so “fairly” fought, with men in uniforms on rural battlefields, but instead through cowardly acts of terror.
By the time I found my middle-aged self in Gettysburg back on that misty day, the nation’s politics had once again turned toxic, like a sepsis from a wound that never really healed. It’s exponentially worse now — in 2022, as we sit — so much more vitriolic, hateful, and steeped in a scourge of misinformation.
Before I left Gettysburg in my wake for that third time in my life, I stopped in the gift shop — now, a gift shop on steroids — and bought water for the ride home, a soldier bag for my husband (he’d hate it if I called it a murse, which it is), and a mug depicting the Gettysburg address for me. Just outside the gift shop sat a table where visitors could “Send a Message to the Troops” via postcard. I filled one out, and hoped it found someone out in some far-off “battlefield” and makes her or him feel thought-of and important.
I stopped to snap a selfie with a bronze statue of President Abraham Lincoln before getting on the road, just long enough to hear a strange conversation unfold between a father and son coming up the path to see the museum. “Lincoln,” the child exclaimed when he saw the statue where I was taking my selfie. “Take a picture of me, Daddy,” the little boy pleaded. There was an awkward pause before the father said, “Nah. Nah. Not now. Besides, he was on the other side.”
I thought of my great-grandmother again in that moment, by all accounts a church-going, southern, conservative Republican woman to her core. There was never any question how she came down on such matters. Slavery was immoral, a sin, and a war fought on slavery’s behalf — pitting neighbor against neighbor, countryman against countryman, brother versus brother — was, too. This was not up for debate.
She’d brought me to that hallowed battlefield to instill that in me.
It felt tragic, almost surreal, to see a child brought to that solemn place and taught otherwise — its lessons not just missed but mistaken, misrepresented, warped. Once again it feels surreal to see members of Congress masticating the possibility of bloodshed, or to read articles by pundits pondering whether Civil War in the United States is inevitable or has already begun.
Perish the thought.