I first posted this essay on Memorial Day 2008 and it remains my personal favorite. I suppose that's because there is a lot of me in it, and it expresses very clearly some of my most heartfelt feelings about this terrible time in our nation's history, the people who lived through it, and, most of all, those who served and the ground they fought upon. As another Memorial Day approaches, I wanted to re-post it so my newer readers can enjoy it, learn from it, and, perhaps, take it to heart.
I am writing this essay on Memorial Day weekend and, given the special significance of that date, I wanted to write a little bit about Civil War battlefields. If you have ever visited a Civil War battlefield, you may have noticed that visitors come in all sizes and shapes, and their visits are fueled by a host of varying motivations. You will see families on vacation, and observe parents desperately trying to interpret the map they picked up at the visitor’s center, while their children burn off all the energy they have been forced to hold inside on what seems to them like an endless ride in the car. The children joyfully laugh and shout, climbing all over the cannons and memorial statues, blissfully ignorant of the significance of the place they are visiting. You will also see the tour groups, often made up of senior citizens or foreign tourists. These visitors may have some understanding of the battle that took place here, but they are far from experts. They listen to their tour guide politely and conduct themselves properly; respecting the ground they walk upon, but not really connecting to it in any meaningful way. Then, there are the visitors with a deeper, more tangible interest. They are historians, amateur and professional, or those often referred to as Civil War “buffs.” No matter which, for them, these battlefields are very special places, and I count myself among this group.
We visit battlefields for of a variety reasons, but, often as not, we go there to study and to learn. We want to see the places we have read about and visualized in our mind’s eye, adding a tangible reality to the events we have studied. There is also the need to actually see hills, creeks, and woods we have only seen on a map up to that moment. And there is the desire to stand in the same place a corps or regiment commander once stood, see what he saw, and, in doing so, attempt to gain a better understanding of the decisions he made. We also seek to understand the flow of events and how this physical place affected them. Sometimes, these visits become very clinical, as in the case of a classic tactical study, such as the Army War College’s Staff Rides. I have seen visitors pouring over books, commenting on which regiment was where, how they advanced, and what impact their movements had, critiquing the events of some 145 years ago. However, while these things are all very useful and productive products of a battlefield visit, there is so more to be gained from a battlefield.
Beyond these very academic and almost sterile experiences, there is also a deeply emotional and almost spiritual experience to be had, a connection to be made, if you can find it and allow yourself to feel it. That connection will tell you a story in a way that no book ever can, and allow you to see things and feel them in a way that will forever change how you study the events of this national tragedy. I think the first thing one should connect to is the place, what it was and what it became. These places really are not merely a geographic location where a battle occurred on certain date. Once, they may have simply been a small town, surrounded by farms and fields, quiet, serene, and pastoral places where people worked the soil, raised their families, and experienced the joys and sorrows that comprise a lifetime. Then, one day, thousands of uninvited guests arrived in the form of competing armies, and these armies were made up of men who longed to be anywhere else but here. However, fate had brought them to this place and, here; they would create a true hell on earth. When the armies left, the fields and the town would never be the same again.
Oh, they might be quiet even now, probably still seeming serene and pastoral to the eye. But the heart knows them to be something entirely different. These empty fields, still ponds, and lazily meandering country roads now have names. They are called The Corn Field, The Wheatfield, The North Woods, and The Peach Orchard, as though there are no others. The pond is now known as the Bloody Pond and a once nameless country road is called The Bloody Lane for reasons to cruel and horrible to contemplate. And for those reasons, these now peaceful places contain a great and, yet, undefined power, one that will also allow you to connect with those that were here, those that forever changed these places.
The first time I experienced this connection was in 1994 on my initial visit to Gettysburg. The trip was the fulfillment of a childhood dream and I was determined to make the most of it. Armed with a guidebook, I drove throughout the battlefield and walked many miles, trying to see everything that I could. As late afternoon approached, I found myself wandering the ground where Pickett’s men had assembled before they made that last desperate charge. As I slowly made my way through the trees below Seminary Ridge, I thought of the thousands of men and boys who crouched here, listening to the artillery barrage, and anxiously looked across all that open ground between themselves and Cemetery Ridge where the Union II Corps awaited them. I found myself asking out loud, “What were you thinking?” And, at that moment, I almost felt like someone was trying to tell me. It was not an audible answer, not even a whisper. At the same time, however, it was something very real and visceral. It was as though the ground I stood on and the air around me was filled with a strong, yet undefined presence.
Now, I am not easily given to such feelings. I am not a believer in either the paranormal or ghostly apparitions, and that is not what I am describing. This was more emotional and very real yet, still, very ethereal. It was suddenly as though I had been given a wonderful gift, a feeling that was very much my own but, at the same time, came from many others, from those who had been here, who had been a part of that moment. As I continued my journey around Gettysburg, these sensations grew stronger, perhaps because I was now so very aware of them. I decided to just go with them, to see what they told me. I am forever grateful that I did so, because they have followed me to every battlefield I have visited since that day.
What this emotional connection, this presence, has told me is a different story for every field, every place. However, in every case, it has been the story of the average soldier, what they saw, what they felt, while experiencing something too awful for most of us to truly comprehend. The intensity of that connection is almost too strong to describe in words. It is something that fills one up, overwhelms you, but also provides great clarity. The resulting sense I am left with has been the same no matter what battlefield I am walking upon: great pride balanced by equally profound sorrow, and a sense of incredible tragedy that is combined with humble gratitude.
Exactly what this presence is and what to call it is a difficult matter. When walking a battlefield, I have seen others who feel it. They are the ones who, like me, always speak to one another in hushed tones as they wander the field, behaving as though they are in a church, in a place of sacred memories. And, perhaps they are, for these fields carry the memories of those who fought here, both those who would return home and the many thousands who did not. Lincoln said at Gettysburg that we could not dedicate, consecrate, or hallow that ground because those who fought there had already done so far beyond our mere mortal abilities. Perhaps that is what I feel when I walk a battlefield.
However, there was someone else who attempted to define this power, this presence: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the venerable Maine college professor turned soldier and the great hero of Little Round Top. After the war, like many veterans, Chamberlain sought to find some reason, some purpose to the horrors he had witnessed. A gifted writer and eloquent speaker, Chamberlain would ably put into words what so many who had served felt so very deeply. As a result, he and a few others, like Oliver Wendell Holmes, would become spokesmen for a generation of Americans. But, in 1889, when Chamberlain spoke at the dedication of his unit’s memorial at Gettysburg, he would provide something perhaps even greater by describing what he believed would be the source of the emotions I have felt ever since I first visited Gettysburg 15 years ago. More than that, he also was defining the true legacy of every Civil War battlefield and doing so far better than I ever could.
"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”
If you are a Civil War historian like me, one of the thousands of Civil War buffs, or just an interested battlefield visitor, I would urge you to listen to Chamberlain, and seek what he described. If you do, it will take you on a fascinating journey and, most importantly, a journey that honors those whose presence you feel and whose vision you now embrace.