On a high at the High Water Mark.
Reminiscences of a singular sultry summer day at Gettysburg Battlefield July 22, 1998
"In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; 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." - GENERAL JOSHUA LAWRENCE CHAMBERLAIN, from an address given at the Gettyburg battlefield October 3, 1889
Journal: July 22, 1998
Gettysburg. The very name resonates with me. I'd know this place, intimately, thanks to chronicle and film, had I never set foot in it. Yes, I've been here before. Some 450 miles south of my home near Toronto, it draws me like a magnet. History is a living thing here; palpable. This is a special and unique place in America. Here, the past coexists with the present on fairly equal footing.
Though Canadian by Citizenship, European by birth, I have a special feeling for this place. The more I appreciate what it has to offer of the period the more there is to discover. This is my third visit. So far, a stopover on the way to somewhere else; never enough time. Today, I'm going to do it right. I'm going to walk as much of that "good ground", that "lovely ground", as possible. I have only this afternoon. Tomorrow my travel companion and I will engage in the more mundane adventures of outlet mall shopping. A compromise of sorts. After all, I must remember, not everyone is a Civil War buff. Luckily, like most women, I have a soft spot for shopping.
Today I want to get into History. I mean, get a real sense of it, not merely observe the evidence. Ken Burns' Civil War Series got me hooked; the subject has since become an abiding passion. I suspect my ardor may have something to do with a mid-life crisis, a sublimation of the urges of a hyper-active libido. All I know is right now I'm on a real high just being here. I've dreamed of walking this hallowed ground for a long time. The self-guided vehicle and open-air bus tours of my previous visits served their purpose. More than anything they whet my appetite for a closer, less harried inspection.
It's about midday when my friend drops me off in the Military Park at Rose's Farm. She's baffled, even a little worried, I'm sure, by my burning desire to hike alone here in the heat. It's eerily quiet except for the sounds of birds and crickets. I don't expect her to understand, but I'm pleased that she indulges me. I reassure her I'll be back at the Hotel in time for dinner.
I'm in the middle of a bucolic and tranquil setting. A woman alone, now, in what was, for a time, on July 2, 1863, a kind of No Man's Land. Southwest of ill-famed Sickle's Salient, I believe this was part of the Federal skirmish line - awfully, uncomfortably close - a few hundred yards - from Seminary Ridge, the Confederate battle line, more sparsely treed then, and the cannon ranged along it. Until I stopped just now, I hadn't decided where this particular journey would begin. But now that I think about it, here on the periphery is a good place to start. Phase in. Up ahead, or, over to the right, whichever direction, I'll soon be in the thick of it. "Walk a mile in my shoes...." Who was it that said that?
What was the General thinking? I know, I know.... He didn't like his assigned low sloping position at the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, even if it was firmly attached to the left flank of the Union Army 2nd Corps and close to strategically advantageous Little Round Top. There, he could be easily supported from interior lines. If this forward position seemed an obvious mistake when I read about it, it seems even more apparent now that I'm standing here. Most of the army is way back on Cemetery Ridge. This is high ground, all right, but the line is completely exposed, looking into the teeth of the tiger. Where to, for protection? Of course, I'm quite safe, thank goodness, unless I run into someone who lets his testosterone get the better of him. What if somebody jumps out of the bushes, or his vehicle, and tries to ambush me? Mistakes me for the enemy? Or an easy target? I'm not wearing a uniform and I'm not armed. I smile, secure, self-assured, as I head toward the Salient at the Peach Orchard.
There's no telling how such an attempt would turn out for the would-be aggressor - my adrenaline is up I tell you - ready for fight or flight. It's a glorious day. The sun is brilliant. Hot and humid, hovering in the high 80's, pretty much as it was then. Unlike those soldiers in their stifling, densely woven wool uniforms, I travel light - denim shorts, tank top, sandals, tidy shoulder bag, and sunglasses. They're on my forehead more than my face - I prefer the vista not be diminished. I'm not worried about sunburn or sun-stroke, interestingly. Somebody up there is on my side. I need to be mobile and unencumbered. I look longingly toward Devil's Den and Little Round Top but decide they're best reserved for another time, in good company, an experience to be shared. A reason to come back. I find Devil's Den a little fearsome, frankly. I need moral support, preferably masculine, brawny, and broad-shouldered. Aptly named, it has tremendous natural visual appeal, yet is forbidding, a wild sort of place, where massive granite boulders loom sentry-like over a tumbled, gnarled, heavily rock-strewn landscape. LRT is my favorite section of the battlefield. I could spend hours in that most beautiful of places.
I pick up the pace along Emmitsburg Road with a corresponding sense of excitement as I head along the rise to the Peach Orchard. What a place to wage war. What a peaceful pretty place. Near the Wheatfield Road perimeter a cluster of tourists gathers around their guide in rapt attention as he regales them with moments of high drama I hardly hear but can well imagine. We are standing within the deadly field of fire of the artillery dual that raged on the 2nd Day between two armies. Thereafter, fiery, impetuous General Barksdale led his Mississippians on their irrepressible sweep through the salient.
I wander toward and briefly rest by the furiously fought-for Wheatfield, then take Sickle Avenue along the Federal 3rd Corp defense line and rejoin Emmitsburg Road, heading for the High Water Mark. En route, I must make way for intermittent traffic and cyclists. A passing motorist smiles at me and makes the peace sign. I bet he'd rather be out here, too, walking, instead of driving.
The field on both sides of the road is more open and accessible in the area of the 3rd Day's Assault. I try to imagine what it must have been like to be on either side in Pickett's Charge. I need to put myself in each place, literally. First, I climb over the split rail fence and approach Seminary Ridge, the Confederate stronghold, where I see a group taking in the scene on horseback. I'm envious. Next time.
About face. I move steadily but not swiftly toward the celebrated Clump of Trees on the opposite Ridge. Immediately, profoundly, I appreciate not having to hurry into a hail of bullets. It's damn hot out here. Imagine. I'm thankful it's not much further to reach the enemy. Warm and weary, I move up the slope to the Angle and sit in the cool, comforting shade of the enormous oak. With due respect, I gaze outward from this ultimate Federal position. All the while a wafting, whirling, maelstrom of refreshing air whips around me, blowing my hair every which way, buffeting and caressing my flesh. Is it always like this? If so, the experience is amazing, exhilarating. I highly recommend it. Could the phenomenon be spirits in motion? I bask in the feeling and let it revitalize me. I close my eyes. Is this what it means to be totally alive 'in the moment'?
Opening them, the embodiment of my idealized soldier has somehow materialized in front of me! Tall, bronze, handsome, noble in bearing, he stands in contemplation in the light. Real, no apparition - perhaps, no soldier - but there is a sense of timelessness. Lost in thought, thankfully, he doesn't see me, in the shadows, staring. He turns slowly and moves away. Then I see. He has lost an arm....
I have just witnessed the supreme, unforgettable episode in this thoroughly engaging, soul-stirring afternoon. Incredibly, a fitting place this is, to come to rest.