By daylight I found myself out of place in Gettysburg almost instantly. Our hotel served a free but limp breakfast in a fluorescent-lit room with a depressingly industrial tile floor. The other guests wore things like flag pins, khaki Bermuda shorts, and shirts in bright but poorly coordinated colors; none of them seemed younger than forty. Hotel management also held the mindset that the first thing you want to do in the morning is watch TV while you eat— watch any channel, that is— and so Today blared from an unnecessarily large screen on the wall.
Our ultimate purpose here was to see the Civil War battlefield. It had been my idea, and I wasn’t yet regretting it, nor would I. I have always been nearly as interested in the Civil War as I am in the American Revolution. Nonetheless, I failed to grasp at first that the Battle of Gettysburg did not really take place on just one field; the battlefield was the entire town, spread over multiple fields and hills and streets. And as a town Gettysburg certainly qualified as a tourist trap, crammed with souvenir stores, the architecture of so many façades ambiguous as to whether they were renovated historic structures or merely built to resemble such. If my family had taken me to this place as a child, I would have loved it. As for now—
My husband and I fumbled a little for what to see. I think I wanted to go somewhere quiet, meditative, where dead bodies lay. I certainly did not want a guided tour or to spend an inordinate amount of money doing anything we could just do ourselves. So although we drove to the visitor center for the national military park, we spent minimal time at that location. For a hefty sum we could have viewed a museum of war artifacts, a presumably impressive cyclorama painting of the battle, and a film; but even if we wanted to pay, time was also limited, and we surmised the film would be intolerably patriotic.
However, we discovered from the information desk that the whole town had signage guiding visitors to various key sites— in other words, there was a self-guiding auto tour option. This naturally cost nothing, so we started to give this a whirl. This, too, failed on account of poorly marked turns, but as the sun climbed higher in the sky we finally found the right sort of thing to see. We found the military cemetery.
When we parked and exited the car in the cemetery’s grass-covered lot, and as we ventured through a gate, initially I saw nothing remarkable. The first graves before us were not from the Civil War, instead serving as markers for soldiers from various wars, either killed in action, missing, or buried here as dead veterans. White, neat little stones with impeccably matched lettering and religious symbols. I knew these stones from a number of visits to Arlington National Cemetery, both for tourism and for the burial of my paternal grandmother, who was the wife of a naval officer. We had to walk for several minutes under the shade of many enormous trees before we found the place where the soldiers of Gettysburg itself had been formally re-interred a few months after the battle.
Somewhere in that vicinity, Abraham Lincoln had made a certain speech on the occasion of said re-interment, but we didn’t look for that site. We knew the speech and we also knew that Lincoln had suspended habeas corpus during the war and had only made the Emancipation Proclamation as a strategic maneuver after repeatedly insisting that the war only concerned secession rather than the practice of holding human beings as chattel. Lincoln begone. We walked to a gentle hillside where row after row of skeletons were laid beneath our feet. It was hard to read the names on the flat stone markers, but it was harder to read things like “412 bodies from New York.” In those cases the names had never been figured out. About 50,000 people died in Gettysburg over the course of three July days, a tally nearly equal to the amount of US deaths in the entire Vietnam War; I almost couldn’t believe how with 50,000 corpses in the same town even a tiny fraction of them could be identified, catalogued, and sorted by state. The ground where we now stood could not remotely hold all of them, either. I wondered how many bodies were never buried and simply rotted in the summer sun and eventually had their bones swept away, months or years later.
The trees nearby were still thick and tall and majestic. Some had to be old enough that the fighting which took place on this very hill also took place under the same shadowing branches. Growing up in New England, I had visited my share of battle sites where I had to confront the knowledge that blood was shed right where I stood, long before I was born. Growing aware of this whole continent’s exploitative past, I have often had to confront the knowledge that there are many places where blood was shed that no one has bothered or known to mark. But as far as I know, too, until looking at Gettysburg’s great trees and anonymous graves I had never stood in a place of old, catastrophic horror. I was standing somewhere that could have still swirled with screams and entrails and flies and powder burns and death stares. And it was silent, so silent.
In that quiet, my eyes welled from time to time. I took one photo, capturing some graves of New Hampshire soldiers, because they came from what I would generally call my home state. In the town where I was raised, the common had a monument to Civil War participants, and this monument stood from the perspective of a small Northern population whose children had enlisted or, just as likely, been conscripted into a faraway festival of slaughter. At long last, I was now walking upon soil where some of those children had met their ends, never going home.
I still cannot describe why I am grateful to meet those hidden bodies at their final destination, especially not after all the bunting and commercialism I had to endure for that purpose. But I was grateful. And then I myself did get to go home.
D. Llywelyn Jones
To be concluded in part 8. Links to come.