Photo courtesy of National Park Service
What follows is a guest post from my good friend, Garry Adelman, who shares his thoughts about last week’s Gettysburg commemoration.
I had been looking forward to the Gettysburg 150th commemoration for years. I knew—all Civil War people knew–it would be a big deal. Some could not wait to go; some treated it like the plague. That is Gettysburg. Fascination with the place, and resentment about its status as the Civil War Mecca of sorts, date back to the war itself as Gettysburg increasingly took its place as the war’s best-known battlefield.
Being obsessed with Gettysburg, I try my best to take a historian’s look at the place I love—I don’t call it the most important battle in, or the turning point of, the Civil War. Pickett’s Charge was not the biggest, bloodiest, or most consequential attack of the war. But nonetheless, almost like a cliché, the Gettysburg Battlefield remains my favorite place—and not just among battlefields. It is my favorite place of any sort. So, I was all but certain to have a great week. And I did. Thing is, it was much, much more enjoyable, meaningful, cool and enlightening than I ever expected. In an adult life full of great Civil War experiences across the country, the Gettysburg 150 week topped them all. I am giddy as I write about it.
This was by no means certain to happen. There was no promise that the National Park Service would plan and perform as well as it did. The weather did not have to cooperate. The people who came did not have to be so engaged. But in the same way that forces aligned in 1863 (biggest battle, first preserved, Gettysburg Address, near media centers) to make Gettysburg so famous, forces aligned again in 2013. The NPS, the Gettysburg Foundation, the weather, the historians, but most of all the nerds, buffs, enthusiasts and casual tourists—the visitors—conspired to make this thing special. Yes, I actually said it. Over the six days I was there, people were happy, pensive, and engaged. I have never seen anything like it in my 19 years as a Gettysburg guide or at any heritage destination. Tens of thousands crowded into an area, sometimes in pretty hot temperatures, not only enjoying themselves, but eager for more. They were everywhere–on NPS-sponsored tours, in far-off wooded places, touring on crowded roads, in town, at the Visitor Center. And they were interested. Satisfied. To be sure there were intolerable and clueless visitors, as always, but overwhelmingly, this was the exception.
Even better, visitors (hundreds and hundreds of whom were wearing Civil War Trust hats!) wanted to share their stories. They were anxious to talk about what they had just done, what tours they went on, who they saw, what it meant to them, what was next. This surprising aspect of the anniversary, which I saw at Antietam and other commemorations but not to this extent, was pervasive throughout the days I was there. And it just went on and on and the events maintained a high standard—to me they kept getting better.
After the event, I read that some historians and members of the media were unhappy with certain aspects of the opening ceremony speeches on June 30th. Not me. I was hanging out more in 1913 than 2013 doing something very similar to what the veterans and their guests did–commemorating. I could see the High Water Mark, Little Round and Cemetery Hill from my chair. It rained before and after the ceremony but not a drop during. Ending the evening with a 21-gun salute and an unforgettable march through an illuminated National Cemetery was altogether fitting and proper. I saw somber or happy people holding candles as they reflected. I heard people anxious for the next day to come, and come quickly.
Thousands were already on the first day’s field before 8:00am. There were cars being parked in places I had never seen before. I joined perhaps 800 people on the edge of Reynolds Woods at 9:00. Ranger talks were ongoing. You could look toward the Lutheran Theological Seminary and see mobs of people. Oak Hill was already packed with cars. And yet, Tim H. Smith and I walked 100 yards into Herbst Woods and stood on the slight rise where Tennessee troops fired a volley into the arriving Iron Brigade 150 years ago to the hour (DST accounted for). We were alone. Thousands nearby but no one in sight. And that was also pervasive. Even on perhaps the most crowded week in its existence, peace and even a degree of quiet were readily available.
I won’t punish readers here with a play-by-play of each day I was there, but know that the electricity never ceased and the goodies just kept coming. Special events, unexpected surprises, cool experiences. I was at Devil’s Den on the afternoon of July 2, when I happened upon the great-grandson of the 124th New York’s Lt. Col. Francis M. Cummings. I have researched this soldier, pulled his service records, written about him. I know all about him. And there, 150 years after Cummins was wounded at Devil’s Den, I held the sword he was carrying when he was wounded, where he was wounded. Unplanned. Unforgettable. Just as cool were seeing people I knew and meeting people who knew me—through Facebook, online videos or TV—almost everywhere I went.
I thought that the July 3rd Commemorative March would be cool and had hoped that it would include the requisite 12,000 people. It did. The NPS estimates that some 15,000 were on Seminary Ridge with even more on Cemetery Ridge. As the March started, I was atop the Pennsylvania Memorial with about 100 others. I narrated what happened historically as it was happening in front of us. This was wildly cool. I have told the story of Pickett’s Charge countless times and have done my best to paint the picture, to bring it to life. Obviously, seeing that many people crossing that field was exceedingly instructive. I was struck at the impossibility of capturing the March with my cameras. It was simply too big. Even from atop Gettysburg’s largest monument, I could not see the whole thing and I found no single place where I could. I have not seen a single photo, even panoramic, that encapsulates the breadth. It was also incredible how small the individual people were as they crossed. The mob looked large but the individuals were much smaller than I had expected.
As the March continued, I moved toward the Angle to the occasional cannon blast and Rebel Yell. As the “troops” arrived, they stretched from the Bryan farm to the U.S. Regulars Monument. Again, hard to take in, harder to explain. You simply had to be there. The “opposing” forces remained separated as a bugler played Taps. Then another. As the next one started, I started shooting a video as I walked, hand on heart, southward, capturing the last seven buglers. I am not aware that anyone else walked along for this many, let alone shot a video of it. The personal meaning bestowed by the successive performances as some 30,000 people stood in silence caught me completely off guard. It was awesome, and for perhaps the first time, I am using this word literally. Check out the video here, if you care to.
My 150th culminated and concluded with a 7 a.m. July 4 aftermath tour Tim Smith and I led at the Rose Farm—where Alexander Gardner and his crew captured at least 14 photos showing at least 53 dead soldiers, more than at any other Civil War place (nearly 15% of all photos of Civil War dead were taken here). The Center for Civil War Photography created large-format 3-D anaglyph photos of the dead and provided 3-D glasses for the nearly 500 people in attendance. We staked the photo boards into the ground where Gardner’s cameras had been placed 150 years (minus two days) earlier. The 3-D photos served as windows through which you could look through time. Horrifying and fascinating. If you ever get the chance to look at 3D historic photos at the place where they were taken (which by adding the time element makes it a real 4-D experience), do so. Saying “wow” or “cool” does not cover it. Something else, something more meaningful, transcendent even, is happening when you do.
I cannot think of a better or more appropriate way to have capped off such an incredible week. I remain on cloud nine in its wake with thoughts of the commemorations to come—not just those in the next two years but, no joke, the Gettysburg 175th at which I plan to be. As for the 200th, if I live past my 96th birthday, regardless of where I am or in what condition, I’ll be there. While I do not expect to be able to ascend Big Round Top or sit atop the Elephant Rock at that time, I will no doubt retrace some of my steps and reflect in tandem upon the battle and what is at least as of now, my favorite Civil War week. It very well may be all downhill from here!
Garry Adelman is the author, co-author or editor of twenty Civil War books. His most recent title is Gettysburg in 3-D, which was published this past April. He is the vice president of the Center for Civil War Photography and a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg He works full time as Director of History and Education at the Civil War Trust. He first set foot on the Gettysburg Battlefield 25 years ago this week.