When at Gettysburg Remember to Turn Around

Just returned from a short trip in which I accompanied a group of high school students from Brooklyn to Washington, D.C., Harpers Ferry, Antietam and Gettysburg. Thanks to Lisa Kapp – a longtime reader of this blog and a very talented history teacher – for asking me to come along as a guide. I had a wonderful time.

While at Gettysburg we met briefly with Peter Carmichael at the Virginia monument to discuss the Pickett-Pettigrew assault. Pete asked the students to think about the placement of the monument at such a prominent spot on the battlefield and whether it suggested in any way that Confederates lost this particular battle. He also asked them to reflect on the monument in light of the broader cause of the Confederacy and the consequences for African Americans had they been victorious.

But it was a decision that Pete made at the end of the path where Virginians formed on the Spangler farm and which looks out on Cemetery Ridge. After describing the attack Pete asked the students to look behind them. He didn’t dwell on it too long, but he did make the crucial point that not all Confederates moved forward. Not all Confederates were brave in the face of the horror that awaited those who crossed the Emmittsburg Road. Some skulked and never formed up and others fell out along the way and made their way back.

There is just as interesting a discussion to be had in facing toward the rear as there is in facing forward, but on battlefields like Gettysburg, with its many monuments, that move is not so obvious. Our monuments encourage us to look forward. Think of the North Carolina monument at Gettysburg in addition to the Lee monument. They shape how we view the character of the men who fought in these battles. They were all brave. They were all clear-eyed about the cause for which they were ready to pay the ultimate sacrifice.

This trip has left me thinking about the many entry points on Civil War battlefields and at historic sites that can be used to encourage critical thinking. Pete demonstrated that by turning around on ground that encourages us to look forward we can uncover a whole new set of questions and stories.

3 comments… add one
  • Good point, not all were brave, courageous and bold.
    Perhaps the parody of “Just Before the Battle Mother” should be widely publicized. The first verse as I have heard it goes.
    Just before the battle mother, I was drinking mountain dew, ( not the soft drink) When I saw the rebs a comin’ quickly to the rear I flew.
    Fare well mother you’ll not find me lying dead among the slain, for when I hear the sound of battle, I will quickly run away.

  • In 1903 there was a proposal in the Pennsylvania legislature to allot $20,000 for a statue of Lee at Gettysburg, provided Virginia put in $20,000. Nothing came of it, as not surprisingly there were questions raised by some veterans as to why Pennsylvania would want to do such a thing. The rationale provided at the time as to the location of the monument was that its size and placement would visually help make the battle more explainable (in that it oriented the visitor to the facing of the lines and direction of the third day’s battle). Later (1917) Virginia went ahead and financed the statue of Lee and memorial to Virginia troops on their own.

    I had to chuckle (because it struck me as funny) at Mr. Carmichael’s question. Would you imagine in 1917 the state legislature in Virginia would have placed the Virginia monument someplace other than at the jump off point to Pickett’s Charge? Of course it is a prominent place, where else would you have put it, behind an early Stuckey’s in Cashtown?

    • Would you imagine in 1917 the state legislature in Virginia would have placed the Virginia monument someplace other than at the jump off point to Pickett’s Charge?

      Probably not, but I assume you understand the bigger point, which is that monuments can deceive by pushing us to assume a certain (limited) perspective on what took place.


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