Our recent trip to Gettysburg was a blast, and not just because I love to stand up in front of a crowd and talk about something I’m interested in.
If you get a chance to visit Gettysburg National Military Park during the annual Sacred Trust event,* take it. The event is well-organized. Speakers start and stop with a military precision that the commanders at the battle would have envied. More important, the organizers choose speakers on a broad range of topics. Some of the talks are what I think of as technical military history: the nitty-gritty of battles and troop movements. But history buffs who are not particularly interested in descriptions of troop movements will also find subjects of interest. This year’s program included talks on
• Charles Anderson, the poor schmuck who spoke after Lincoln
• Whether Robert E. Lee actually committed treason
• The relationship of Nat Turner’s slave revolt to the Civil War three decades later
• A history of Gettysburg as a park
• The transformation of American medicine as a result of the war
• Some nerd talking about Civil War nurses–who would have thought?
(Makes you wish you’d been there, doesn’t it?)
Even if you can’t get to Gettysburg for the Sacred Trust, the park is well worth a visit. Here were some of the things I recommend:
1. Hire a battlefield guide. Official battlefield guides are more than just local fanatics. They are local fanatics who have been trained, tested, and licensed by the park service. Each one approaches the story a little differently. Most will ask you if there is something in particular that you’re interested in. A two-hour tour is $65 for a carload of one to six people, plus a tip. And a bargain at the price.
2. The excellent film, A New Birth of Freedom, narrated by Morgan Freeman. One of the things that impressed me most about the film (as well as audio portions in the museum) is that they didn’t give in to the temptation to have Freeman read Lincoln’s lines. Instead Lincoln’s words were spoken by an actor who gave him the authentic thin, twangy sound that made cultured Northeasterners grind their teeth when he first opened his mouth. My favorite line from the film? “Freedom, like power, is never uncontested.”
3. The cyclorama! I’ve written about the Gettysburg Cyclorama before, but I’d never seen it. No photograph can do it justice. The restored painting is amazing as it stands. Combined with light and sound, the experience is astonishing. The figures appear three-dimensional and the smoke, painted with flecks of tinsel, seems to move.
4. The museum does an excellent job of placing the battle in the larger context of the war: from the build up to the war through to its aftermath. The curators have chosen wonderful images and great quotations to illustrate their points. I love the way they use blue and grey throughout the exhibition, giving the viewer a subtle clue as to whether a particular point deals with north and south. But I did not linger. In part because there was lots of competing audio and video, which I find physically unpleasant. But in part because I’ve been immersed so deeply in the Civil War for the last year that it was too familiar to hold my interest.** My guess is I’d have gone through it more thoroughly if I’d been there two years ago.
5. If you’re at Gettysburg on a summer weekend, take the shuttle bus to the George Spangler Farm Civil War Hospital, which is run by the Gettysburg Foundation in conjunction with the park. The Foundation hosts reenactment groups and offers living history programs on both civilian farm life at the time of the war and the realities of Civil War medicine.
Gettysburg National Military Park, and in fact all of the National Battlefields and National Military Parks I’ve visited over the years, commemorate war without romanticizing it. As should we all.
*Scheduled each July to coincide with the anniversary of the battle.
**I keep thinking I’ll set the subject down for a while, but it just keeps nudging me. If you’re suffering from Civil War fatigue, Dear Readers, please let me know.