I was first at Gettysburg some ten years ago – staying there while I was researching at the nearby Army Heritage Centre at Carlisle Barracks, some fifteen miles away from the town. It was November and stupidly, I’d forgotten about Thanksgiving Day, which fell while I was there. Since it was a public holiday, the archives wasn’t open so I found myself with a day to kill.
Actually, this worked out really well, because armed with ‘Hallowed Ground’ by James McPherson, I took myself off on a tour of the battlefield. McPherson wrote Battle Cry For Freedom, widely considered one of the great accounts of the Civil War, but his Hallowed Ground is also wonderful. Very short, it’s a personal guide to the battlefield, full of stories and anecdotes, but with just the right level of analysis too. Over the course of the day, with McPherson effectively beside me as my very wonderful guide, I trotted around, seeing all the major parts of the battlefield. It’s got to be one of the best preserved and most interesting battlefields anywhere in the world and it’s amazing how little much of it has changed. Atmospheric it most certainly is.
I’ve been back in Gettysburg this week and had a further look around and even ran six miles of it this morning. I trotted down Confederate Avenue and past the mighty statue of General Robert E. Lee, from which the fateful Pickett’s Charge was launched on 3 July 1863. Then I ran on and crossed over to the Union lines and up to the Angle. From there, I could look back across the open farmland from where Pikcett’s men made their desperate charge.
It reminded me of one of the best anecdotes in McPherson’s book. It’s July 1938 and the 75th anniversary of the battle. Some 250,000 have congregated in Gettysburg for the dedication of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial at the far end of the battlefield, overseen by the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. There were some 24 veterans who also attended, now with an average age of ninety-four.
Later that day, those veterans agreed to meet at the Angle, where Pickett’s men and the Yankees finally clashed – or rather, those Feds still standing did. The Confederate veterans walked across that same ground towards the waiting Yankees, old men all. Then, around twenty yards from the Yankees, the Rebs starting yelling and broke into a run. For a moment, those watching could only look on open mouthed, wondering what on earth was about to happen. Were these nonogenarians about to try and kill each other all over again, seventy-five years after the first attempt?
Then as they reached the Angle, they stopped, there was a stunned silence and suddenly, spontaneously, the old men, Yankees and Rebs embraced and hugged one another.
The poignancy of that extraordinary encounter really struck me this morning. The average age of WW2 veterans must be about the same. They are slipping away and all too fast. And what must Roosevelt have been thinking at those 75th Anniversary commemorations? Storm clouds were brewing across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and he must have wondered whether young American men would soon be fighting again, or whether he would be able to save them.