I’ve read a limited history of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, seen some documentaries of the battlefields, and even memorized the Gettysburg Address when I was in high school, but my first visit to this massive site left me in awe. Nothing prepared me for the amount of acreage that the battle sites actually covered. As we drove, the hundreds of monuments and cannons announced one company of soldiers or another. Many of the edifices were of marble, iron, or bronze. Statues of soldiers, horses, angels, crosses, weapons, and even one shaped out of gray marble that looked like a bullet.
Pillars and markers noted the companies of fallen southern heroes that came from Florida, Texas, Alabama, and others. Edifices dedicated to the northern fallen men erected to connote the companies from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, New York, and Maine, to mention a few. Many places, monuments became manmade forests of metal and stone.
The reality of the massive scale of sacrifice started to make an impression on me. At times it short circuited my emotions and my thoughts couldn’t take it all in. I would stand on a hillside, looking out over fields, crossed with stone walls and split rail fences, and I knew that men took shelter behind them, firing at other soldiers in bloody combat. I was surrounded by a feeling of the massive and unbelievable amount of pain, suffering, and loss of life. Feelings of sympathy, awe, and horror choked me, almost as though there was a cannonball lodged in my throat.
Often, my brain would go on pause. I would stand there dumbfounded, unable to take it all in. It was as though I hit the pause button on my brain. One field, I was struck with the irony of what I saw. Several monuments dotted a field. Pressing on all sides of these markers were plant after plant of baby’s breath. The delicate flower covered a meadow of death. A flower that often fills funeral baskets, it seemed somehow appropriate and yet out of place. Here at a site of carnage and death, the word baby screamed of new life and was out of place and bizarre.
I think that the one sight made the most impression on me. In a wheat field along McPherson’s Ridge, there were sixty to eighty turkey buzzards on fences, in trees, or in the field between the rows of straw. Dozen were perched on the split rail fence, while others whirled overhead. It was as though these carrion eaters were still at the sites of battlefield carnage, feasting on the spirits of those men who answered the call to battle or perhaps they were lured by the stench of death on the ground that hadn’t been erased over the years.
My thoughts echoed the words of Abraham Lincoln about the hallowedness of the land and the sacrifices made. I felt unworthy to walk on the consecrated land. Impressions of the horror, comingled with feelings of humbleness. A I began to take notes, I began to multiply my feelings by the number of battlefields that were just at this site and then to those other battles that were fought to reconnect a divided land and the desire to see it whole again.