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The past several days have been overcast with gray skies, biting winds, cold rain and even some snow flurries here in Gettysburg, but the clouds finally lifted overnight. And this morning the sun was shining brightly, welcoming a beautiful Fall day. I was not going to let this morning pass by while cooped up inside, thinking about work and bills and the thousands of other distractions that all too often define our days. So I set out, hoping to recapture a little of the magic that is Gettysburg.
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I spent the morning on the southern portion of the battlefield, around the Wheatfield and Stony Top. Everything was quiet; no school buses, no scout groups, in fact, no one. I had the field all to myself.
As the sun rose over Little Round Top to the east, the Fall colors were illuminated . . .
. . .and the monuments brilliantly shined.
As I wandered about, I couldn't help but think about Joshua Chamberlain's famous passage from a speech he delivered in Gettysburg in October 1888 at the dedication of the Maine monuments. "In great deeds, something abides," said the aging warrior, and "On great fields, something stays."
I couldn't agree more. . . "Forms change and pass; bodies disappear," said Chamberlain, "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."
When I was younger, when I traveled to Gettysburg with my family, there was this certain, indescribable but undeniable magic about these consecrated grounds; an unspoken aura, if you will, that surrounded me. The spirits Chamberlain referred to seemed more real to me then. The fields were, indeed, deathless. I could see the struggles; ghostly silhouettes of soldiers in blue and gray forming into lines of battle, charging across the open ground. I got lost as I scanned the peaceful landscapes, thinking to myself, this is where the soldiers fought, this is where so many died. I wasn't yet caught up in the detailed, tactical maneuverings of certain units, or in the controversial decisions of certain generals that continue to generate heated arguments. No, I was simply overwhelmed by the thought that it was on these fields and on these hills where history was made. I was there to "ponder and dream."
Yet, as the years passed and I got older, I grew increasingly more cynical; more concerned with the debates and discussions that define modern Civil War historiography. I suppose it was inevitable. You get wrapped up in the controversies and soon history becomes almost scientific. The battlefields' hallowed grounds all-too often simply become chessboards on which you place and move regiments, brigades, divisions, all in keeping with the chronology of the battle. You struggle to memorize orders of battle, to determine with precise accuracy the range of muskets and cannon. Official reports and the arguments posited by historians assume more importance than the fields themselves. The soldiers who fought and died appear less as they were: living, breathing human beings with hopes, dreams, and fears; they become automatons, no longer young men in our mind's eye, but mere statistics.
Throughout it all, the magic of these fields somehow becomes lost.
But every now and then, I am able to recapture a little of that magic that was so prevalent when I was a kid. I can wander the fields without thinking of the timeline, the precise troop locations, the motivations behind enlistments, the controversies. . .
This morning, I was reminded that in great deeds, something does abide, and on great fields, something does, indeed, stay.