On Saturday I took advantage of the long holiday weekend and visited the Gettysburg National Military Park for the first time with a dear friend who is entering the Hawthorne Dominicans
next month. She has visited Gettysburg on numerous occasions with her family, but she wanted to visit again before she enters the convent.
I was struck by how deeply moved by the experience I was; to be on the battlefield and to see monument after monument detailing the actions and casualties of regiments, individual men, and in at least one case, a dog, is to experience such a compression of time that the 150 years between those three days in July and now seem almost to disappear. The story of the battle was brought to life for us by Gabor Boritt's superb audio auto tour The Gettysburg Story
, which includes a booklet with maps, photos and biographical information of the major participants at each station along the tour; music, sound effects, and dramatized readings of diaries and letters bring an immediacy and human dimension to the tour.
Some of the highlights were: the statue of Fr. William Corby, C.S.C. atop the very boulder on which he stood when he gave general absolution to the Catholic soldiers of the Union Irish Brigade on the second day, July 2; the monument of the Pennsylvania 11th Infantry, on which is a likeness of the regimental dog Sallie, who was thought missing or killed in action on the chaotic first day, but who in fact had stayed behind and was found after the battle guarding the wounded and fallen men of the 11th; the monument to the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, whose 262 men rushed into a hole in the middle of the Union line on day 2, likely saving the Union Army that day while suffering 215 casualties in the process. As a Minnesota native, this was a particularly powerful place on the field, and I was deeply moved to see the monument with the statue of the soldier running with his bayonet forward.
Bas-relief depicting the charge of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers near Plum Run, on July 2, 1863
Depiction of regimental dog "Sallie", 11th Pennsylvania Infantry monument on Oak Ridge
Fr. William Corby, C.S.C. depicted giving absolution and blessing to Union troops
The most powerful moment came near the end, however, at the penultimate station on the long tour: the "High-Water Mark of the Confederacy", the spot on Cemetery Ridge where Confederate forces briefly breached the Union lines on July 3 after the long march across a broad swath of open field known as "Pickett's Charge". Looking across the nearly one-mile stretch of land toward the woods on Seminary Ridge and the glistening white Virginia monument with its likeness of a mounted Gen. Robert E. Lee atop his horse "Traveller", I tried to imagine the fear, excitement, and horror of that day. I wept at the thought of the carnage, and I marveled at how close it all was; the first day was a Confederate rout, while the second was a near-disaster for the Union on both flanks as well as in the middle where the Minnesotans saved the day, and the third day was one in which the Confederates drew up just short again.
I'm a child of the North, which means that my early education pertaining to the, um, "Late Unpleasantness Between the States" was unabashedly pro-Union without looking at the complexity of the underlying issues. This past winter I read Orestes Brownson's The American Republic
(written very shortly after the conclusion of the war in 1865) and came to agree with him that union is one of the essential aspects of our nation; as such, I came to see why preservation of the Union was such an important endeavor that it was worth fighting for.
This is prologue to the questions that came to my mind as I looked out over that grim field and pondered our current administration's ambitions to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Al Qaeda rebels who seek to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad: how much differently would Gettysburg have turned out had Great Britain been providing military aid to the "freedom fighters" of the Confederacy? What would have happened if the Union were broken in part through the intervention of foreign powers? Why have we as a nation, with our historical memory of civil war, taken it upon ourselves to help stir up unrest, not only in Iraq, but also in Libya, Egypt, and now in Syria on behalf of the same people who attacked us twelve years ago?
To the last question, I have no answers, other than to join in our Holy Father Francis's call
to pray and fast this Saturday, September 7, for peace in Syria and throughout the world.
Labels: A World Aflame, Chaos is the Opposite of Freedom, History, Obamanation