You can find Part I of this series here.
After spending the day in Bethlehem, we continued on to Gettysburg. I had been wanting to visit this battlefield for many years, but had never gotten the opportunity to do so. Since I took up my obligations to the military dead, however, that desire had become most pressing. It seemed that connecting to the dead of the land in which I lived, from a battle that had such a tremendous and long lasting effect on our country, was important in some way. It was, at least, an important starting point and I was being pushed hard to go there.
So, on this trip, since I and my two travel companions had to go through Pennsylvania anyway, we determined to visit the battlefield for one night. Our itinerary didn't allow for much more than that, but we all figured a day and a half was ample time.
We arrived about 5:00 pm on a Tuesday, staying at a small bed and breakfast not too far from Culp's Hill.It would be impossible for me to give a complete history of this particular battle in the span of my column so I'm not going to try. For those wanting to learn more about Gettysburg or the Civil War, I recommend Gettysburg by Stephen Sears, Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James McPherson, or Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign by Shelby Foote. That should get you started. I will say that not only was the battle of Gettysburg one of the major battles of the Civil War, but it had the largest death toll of any battle of that war: an estimated 50,000 casualties. Fought on July 1-3, 1863, it was one of the turning points of this conflict. It was also utterly brutal and many dead still lie undiscovered beneath the now serene landscape. Ironically (and completely inadvertently) our visit occurred two days before the 150th year anniversary of the battle.
The feel of the battlefield, which is an immense expanse of land, was palpable (at least it was to me) before we even entered Gettysburg proper. I could feel it as we approached. Battlefields are holy places to me. There is a sentience there, a memory, and a particular resonance unlike any other type of holy space. I was prepared for all of that to a degree as I'd experienced something similar when I first visited Culloden a few years ago. What I hadn't prepared for was that my work with the dead had deepened in the interim, as had my sensitivity to them and my ability to tap into their experiences. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.
We passed the first night quietly, dining at Dobbin House, one of the oldest buildings in Gettysburg. The food and service were amazing. Of course, I should have known from my experiences at the restaurant that this wasn't going to be a pleasure jaunt. On the second floor, Dobbin House has a tiny Civil War museum/display, including a hiding hole that was used by the Underground Railroad. I didn't want to go up and look at it (I was there for the military dead after all and I can get tunnel vision sometimes in my work); my ancestors, however, insisted. So up I went.
Looking at that small space, and it was very small, was wrenching. To think that human beings, sometimes whole families, had once had to squeeze into a space barely large enough to hold two large, packed suitcases in order to win their freedom had me all but bursting into tears. The place stank of desperation and fear and something else too: bitter resolve. I returned to my traveling companions and took my place at the table shaken and quite emotional.