I adore History. In grade school, I loved hearing stories from different periods. In college, I once became so engrossed in a lecture about the Roman Empire that I forgot to take notes until halfway through the hour, which I think pleased the professor. Now, I still love losing myself in stories of the past. But there’s a catch with reading or hearing or watching stories of history – you lose some of the tangible. Interpretation creeps in, and distance. It becomes easy to disconnect these stories from reality and make them just like all the fictional stories you encounter.
That’s why, this last summer, I so enjoyed Disneyland for History Nerds – Gettysburg.
My family originally went to Gettysburg for the 125th anniversary. My brother, who was three at the time, understandably didn’t get much out of it. His memories are fabricated from our stories. (One in particular involves my dad carrying me across a small stream, followed by my mom attempting to do the same with my brother. They didn’t cross without a fall and a soak, and my dad and I were not capable of not laughing hysterically. We have also not been capable of not bringing this up for the past 25 years.) My memory – freakish thing – served me quite a bit better. I remembered climbing rocks, hiking up wooded hills, staring at reenactors as my mom got her birthday picture taken with them, and falling in love with any 7-year-old girl’s favorite – the horse statues.
So, going back this summer for the 150th Battle of Gettysburg Anniversary was like revisiting a bit of our own family history as well. This added, I think, to the overall note of reflection and made it interestingly personal. We made a point of reproducing several of the pictures we’d taken 25 years ago. We tracked down all the Michigan monuments, and we encountered others doing the same, further adding to “bonding-with-nerds time.” There was a wonderful sense of brotherhood, of being connected to this momentous piece of our nation’s history, however tangentially.
There were few things about this trip down memory lane that were not moving. Not only did we interact with this historical place, but we interacted with others doing the same. History nerds united in a common setting, knowledge, and reverence are a wonderful bunch. At Custer’s monument, which is out in a field and you’d never know unless you were looking, we encountered a chap from New Jersey who would have chatted enthusiastically for hours with my dad while my mom and I ate bananas in the car and nursed our sore feet. At the gigantic Pennsylvania monument, I helped a woman scan down the list of the dead to find a relative. Even the park staff drove around and handed out water bottles to us hikers (like THAT would ever happen at the real Disneyland). Everyone was just…happy to be a part of remembering.
The thing I will remember most was reenacting Pickett’s Charge with thousands of other tourists and meticulously dressed reenactors. It was truly one of the most moving experiences of my life, and I sensed the same was true for those around me as we walked in the footsteps of those who’d sweat, stumbled, bled, and mostly died on that deceptively beautiful field.
And that’s another thing – North and South, everyone respected everyone. Not just tourist to tourist, although I saw Union and Confederate reenactors swapping family stories, which was oddly heartwarming. The thing that really struck me was that at the time both sides respected each other. This was a family war. Sometimes literally brother vs. brother. Plaque after plaque held quotes expressing one side’s admiration for the other. Standing on both ends of Pickett’s Charge, you couldn’t help but imagine looking out and feeling the ache of what they were about to do. Both sides were us.
It was interesting talking to tourists who were not “us” and hearing their somewhat objective takes on “our only real war.” We encountered people from England, Japan, Scotland – all places with far more history than our baby country. One English woman I heard saying that it was amazing to her to see how fresh our history was. “You still have the original trees!”
Anyway, this all-around closeness, I think, is what makes it all so powerful to actually be there. You can’t disconnect and consider this just ancient history when you’re actually standing on those fields. It was not that long ago. And what happened in our bloody little war was so rough because it was all us. Everywhere you go in Gettysburg, you read and see and hear stories that make you sympathize with both camps. Looking down from Little Round Top – which has been carefully preserved so that it feels like you’re back in time…but with cameras – I’m sure I was only one of thousands who got choked up imagining the slaughter that took place there. Touching history in this way, with thousands of other co-admirers, it stops being just some story, some dates on a page. This place helped shape our nation. It changed us. United us, eventually. And now, being there, you can’t help feel the weight of it. You can’t help feel close to it, and the dead.
I’m sure there’s some lesson I took away from all this. Something about connecting with and touching bits of history to fully appreciate it, certainly. Something about pulling yourself out of your own head and trying to sympathize with your enemy, certainly. Whatever lessons I came away from Gettysburg with, it was a wonderful opportunity to experience this with my family once again, relive a bit of our own history, and share in the experience with thousands of other history nerds. This time around, I definitely appreciated more than just the horse statues.