America’s history is full of bravery and bloodshed, noble ideas, and flawed men. One of the places that seem to show this so clearly is Gettysburg National Battlefield.
The Battle of Gettysburg marked the turning point of the Civil War. The North and South met for three days in the stifling July heat and fought each other in what became the bloodiest battle of the war. General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia retreated and would never cross the Mason-Dixon line into the Union side again.
The battle was fought as tensions between the Union and the Confederacy had reached an all-time high. In January 1863, six months before the battle took place, President Lincoln had delivered his famous Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves to be free. The objective of the war which had been kindled by questions of states’ rights versus the governments’ rights now became about whether a man had a right to be free.
We slowly made our way through the historic battlefield, beginning with the Union side. Gettysburg in person feels completely different from learning about the battle in a textbook.
The Reality of War
The Battle of Gettysburg, like many battles in the Civil War, took place on the farms of civilians. Many of the farmhouses are still standing today allowing visitors to imagine what it felt like to watch war happen right outside their windows. Many picture war as separate from real life. Gettysburg intentionally reminds visitors of the ways that they intersect. The battlefield feels like a picture of the human paradox: that we are capable of both tending to soil and procuring fruit from it, and fighting one another on that very same soil.
The largest and most prominent monument on the battlefield is the Pennsylvania State Memorial. Standing an impressive 110 feet high, the monument looms over the battlefield. Etched into the four sides of the monument are the 34,530 names of the Pennsylvanians who served their state and country fighting in this battle.
The battlefield monuments are designed to educate visitors on where the Union and Confederate lines were and how the fighting took place. As we moved to the Confederate side of the battle, I was struck by the number of monuments, plaques, and markers that honored the men who fought with these states. The Gettysburg Battlefield National Park website has stated their commitment to preserve “these memorials while simultaneously educating visitors holistically about the actions, motivations, and causes of the soldiers and states they commemorate. A hallmark of American progress is our ability to learn from our history.”
The park is dedicated to providing accurate information and historical context to their visitors to reflect what really happened on the battlefield.
The Visitor Center
After visitors wander around the field the Gettysburg Visitor Center provides a welcome relief from summer heat. More than that though, its Museum of the American Civil War is packed with information, relics, and stories from the Civil War.
The Soldier’s National Cemetery (Gettysburg National Cemetery), the final resting place of the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg and where President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address, is also located in the park and is open from dawn to dusk throughout the year.
I left Gettysburg feeling overwhelmed by the reality of war and would return again to the park to find the stories of bravery and courage in the midst of it. The battlefield is full of stories of people who in a season when their country was hanging on by a thread, summoned enough hope for what their more perfect Union could be to fight for its future.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.
It is 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 gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain―that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
―Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863