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My Little Corner of Pennsylvania

As highlighted in several recent entries, there’s been a discussion on big versus little, obscure versus well-known, and military operational and tactical studies versus studies that establish social, cultural, and political contexts. Or so the dichotomies look to me.

So, let me make a confession: I love Gettysburg. Yes, I do. I’m not ashamed to admit it. But it’s a particular kind of love that’s worth explaining, in part because even as I proclaim my love of Gettysburgs, there are several Gettysburgs I love, and just because I love them doesn’t mean any of the other Gettysburgs (or other battlefields, or other topics) need to become jealous.

First, as to the event of July 1-3: I don’t love every detail of the battle. I don’t buy every book. I’m impressed after a fashion with what people know about the battle, and, as demonstrated by the battlefield guide that Mark and I did, I can get down and dirty with the best of them. For example, Mark and I spent some time trying to locate exactly where the famed traverse of Greene’s line on Culp’s Hill was located. I don’t think we completely satisfied either ourselves or each other with our answer, although for the moment it’s good enough.

For me, however, it’s all about Little Round Top, and it always has been, even before I heard the name Joshua L. Chamberlain. Indeed, I’m a rather severely qualified Chamberlain fan, and I agree with the battlefield guides who complain that Little Round Top has turned into Joshua Top. But I have been up, down, and around Little Round Top, on the east face as well as the west face, as well as approaching it from the south (and having made my way to Big Round Top as well). I take the stories, compare them, think carefully about them (what of Warren’s tale about the glint of bayonets? Did he actually have Smith’s battery fire a shot, when there’s no other record of that; what of the action in the area subsequent to the repulse of the Confederates on the south face?). Where were the 44th New York and the 83rd Pennsylvania deployed (it’s hard to tell from the current terrain, which was marred when they cut the park road in the area). I love the little castle, the Warren monument, the clearing that allowed me to explore the rest of where Weed’s brigade deployed (it was not always the case). And the thrill of going there never leaves me.

That said, there are other parts of the field I like, including some quiet areas. I enjoy the vistas, the scenery, the monuments, all of it. Can I give you a regimental-level play-by-play? Probably not (and I scare myself when I can). But it was something to learn that my wife had an ancestor, a member of the 28th North Carolina, who was captured in the famous charge of July 3 (in our house we do not call it Pickett’s Charge, for reasons that should be readily apparent). I knew enough about the battle to walk her to the very area where it most probably happened.

Now, are there larger issues? Sure there are, and many of them can be addressed during a visit to Gettysburg. Is too much written on Gettysburg? Probably, both in absolute and relative terms, in that fewer and fewer books offer new insights (and I mean real new insights, not purported ones) and understandings. Are there other areas crying for attention? Sure there are.

And what of what Gettysburg’s become? Actually, I came to terms with that a long time ago. I find the town, the shops, the taverns, bars, and restaurants, and the people fascinating and well worth knowing. I find the monuments educational, and you just can’t imagine how horrified I was at the last report of vandalism, involving three monuments, each special to me in some way.

That said, I’ve long been an advocate of the view that Gettysburg’s status as a turning point has long been overblown, although I am intrigued as to how it gained that reputation. To me Gettysburg is part of a larger strategic stalemate in the East that lasted from the summer of 1862 to the spring of 1864. The fact that I find the area and the battle compelling in very particular ways does not blind me to that fact. Indeed, the fact that other battlefields move me in particular ways shows that it’s a particular personal tie to Gettysburg, one that involves personal memories of family, including my parents, my wife, and my children, as well as people like Mark and Steve, that give it a meaning of personal importance to me. I guess what I’m saying, folks, is that one can have it both ways, so long as one knows what one’s doing.

Comments (2) to “My Little Corner of Pennsylvania”

  1. I’m fond of G-burg too, and for many of the reasons Brooks describes, though I don’t have a favorite part of the battlefield. What I do have is a favorite time of day: early dawn, when there’s no one around except the deer that quietly graze at that hour. I get myself a cup of McDonald’s coffee — there’s no Starbucks in G-burg yet, at least not that I’ve noticed — and set off.

    I don’t know about Brooks or Steve, but graduate school nearly ruined Civil War battlefields for me. There’s an academic culture that vaguely looks down on visiting actual historical sites. It isn’t connected to individuals. It’s more like a gray, joyless fog that has somehow seeped into our consciousness as a collectivity. Grad students pick up on that academic culture quite quickly. They may or may not like it, but they absorb it. And only later — in my case, after a couple of years — do they start to relax a bit and realize you can (and should) still enjoy history the way you did as a kid.

  2. I can identify strongly with what Mark and Brooks have written about Gettysburg. I first visited it with my family when I was ten years old and have many fond memories. On returning to the battlefield many years later, after I had gotten my Ph.D., it occurred to me that being able to spend a day walking through a beautiful place like that was one of the better benefits of being a Civil War historian. I’m also inspired by the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fought there (and I believe inspiration is still a valid use for history). I am, however, strongly opposed to what I might call the Gettysburg myth–the idea that Gettysburg was decisive, was a turning-point, was practically the whole war in a single battle. I was recently teaching an undergraduate course on the Civil War and was explaining to the class the presumption of many Americans at the outset of the war that a single battle would decide the entire conflict. A student raised his hand and asked, “But isn’t that pretty much what happened at Gettysburg?” That’s the kind of misconception that I’d like to stamp out. But we can all still enjoy Gettysburg for what it really was and is.