Gettysburg 150 (from someone all but certain to love it)

Garry Adelman

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.

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35 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski Jul 15, 2013 @ 16:43

    What I try to remind myself when I read of something like Goodwin’s speech is the same thing I would say if people were offended by a conservative speaker, namely that there is no inalienable right to never hear anything you strongly disagree with. In the long run the only person who was harmed in any way by her speech was herself, to the extent she revealed herself to some people as a bit tone deaf to her surroundings, especially for an historian.

    Having just gotten back from Gettysburg the only political thing which bothered me was the influence of the green movement on the National Park Service, in service to which the area of the parking lots has been declared a “meadow”. To the unschooled, it appears like nothing so much as an abandoned parking lot left without maintenance. You could easily imagine family pets and small farm animals disappearing without a trace.

    I’m glad I missed the crowds for the 150th. There is very little in the world more satisfying than visiting some part of a battlefield where you can’t hear a single car or human voice and your imagination can take you back all those years. In particular I was out on the extreme right flank of the Confederates looking back over to Devil’s Den and the view and the stillness were amazing. No cars, no buses, no Doris Kearns Goodwin. Just time suspended.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Jul 15, 2013 @ 13:19

    “Her and her kind have taken a page out of Hitlers book, first re-teach history, get everyone relying on the government for everything and brainwash/indocrinate the children through the educational system and then take away everyones rights as well as gun rights. Some of these issues are what started the Civil and Revolutionary war.”

    Yeah, like taking away an enslaved person’s right to be free! You go get ’em!

    And now I understand what John Brown’s raid was all about. It was about taking away guns.

    “I don’t remember being taught in history class that anyone in the North or South were fighting for gay rights, womens rights or civil rights.”

    So is this on your poor memory or on the quality of your education? Because I know of a certain class of people who were fighting for civil rights. Care to guess who they might be?

  • Al Mackey Jul 12, 2013 @ 7:59

    Goodwin’s fault was having a poorly constructed speech from a technical point of view. The major point she was making was that we are continuing to have a new birth of freedom, and that we still need to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work of establishing political and social equality for all. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but she didn’t lay it out for the audience. She didn’t transition the audience from Lincoln’s address to the continuing new birth of freedom of today.

    I don’t have any patience with those who say she politicized the event. What the heck do they think Lincoln did on November 19? What the heck do they think the war itself was? War is a political act with a political objective. Soldiers gave their lives for a political cause. On November 19, Lincoln redefined that political cause. All Goodwin did was extend Lincoln’s redefinition to today’s time, which is what a keynote address does.

    Had she constructed her speech correctly and minimized the personal things like her slumber party with Bill and Hillary and her dancing with LBJ, it would have worked far better because she would have brought the audience along with her from Lincoln’s New Birth of Freedom to today.

    • Jeffry Burden Jul 12, 2013 @ 18:42

      Great points Al. In thinking about the speech, which I heard from the crowd, I realized I don’t need keynote addresses to recite the same old stats, or repeat cliches about service or sacrifice. I like being challenged with new outlooks and viewpoints, as long as the speech eventually lasers in on the purpose for the event. Her effort was more of a pleasantly muddled after-dinner talk for 30 people, not the main feature in front of 8,000 people at the official kick-off for a major commemorative event. That’s her failing.

  • Buddy Secor Jul 12, 2013 @ 3:00

    Excellent 4D presentation on July 4TH! I actually took the photo that you have on your post here. I was honored to be the sole volunteer on an all NPS Social Media Team that week. I experienced the events like no other and will always cherish the incredible week. I had a unique perspective of being up front and center to everything as a photographer. The Pickett’s Charge event was spectacular and monumental. I can’t believe that I was up front dead center of the lead column capturing it all in camera. It will be an experience that I will never forget.

  • Larry Gattens Jul 11, 2013 @ 17:03

    Last week was very memorable, to be apart of the whole festivities was awesome. I don’t even remember the speeches but I will remember some awesome walks through the field, being their from 6a to 11pm and taking it all in, climaxed by Picketts charge is something I will soon not forget!!

  • Garry Adelman Jul 11, 2013 @ 12:49

    Three things:
    1- I didn’t particularly like or dislike DKG’s speech but I would have preferred more rekevance to Gettysburg or Lincoln. Charlie Gibson’s was better. But that’s not what I was there for. The only people I heard talking about it that week were academics and certain angry media folk. It was not the centerpiece that some are implying it was.
    2- Not going to a commemorative week because of the content of a speech you disliked does not make sense to me. Is your battlefield experience entirely dictated by the park steward? Is it that easy for them to ruin the battlefield that it seems you would otherwise like or love?
    3- Thanks Kevin for starting the thread that served to point my wildly positive post on a trip to negativetown!

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2013 @ 13:11

      The only people I heard talking about it that week were academics and certain angry media folk. It was not the centerpiece that some are implying it was.

      I am not suggesting that it was or wasn’t, but the fact that you didn’t hear anyone discussing it doesn’t mean that they don’t have thoughts about it. The keynote address was an important moment during the commemoration because it reflects the choices made by the organizers. I see nothing wrong with raising questions about its meaning.

      I am neither an academic or member of the media, just one individual who likes to think about how others choose to remember the war. 🙂

      • Upset Jul 11, 2013 @ 15:17

        Couldn’t agree more. You might not have heard many people talking about DKG, Garry, but believe me people were and are still. It’s all OVER the internet, including many major news sites. And one article i saw had over 1000 comments. People are OUTRAGED. And i fail to see how you cannot disike her speech, at the very least you should dislike (and this is just one of MANY examples) the parts where she gave everyone highlights from her own life-story including dancing with LBJ, and running through the Whitehouse at night with Chelsea Clinton trying to find the room that Winston Churhill stayed in!!!!!!! I mean, REALLY?!!!!!!!!

        And as Kevin said, the keynote speech IS important, impying that it wasn’t is akin to saying that the keynote speech at the cemetery every year on November 19 is not important…and you will struggle to find many people who would agree with that.

        No, her speech did not ruin the entire week’s events for me (I had a great time actually) but it HAS left a bad taste in my mouth and the way i view the NPS & Foundation has now changed for the worse. I mean, i already knew they were both very liberal, but to allow that progressive nonsense to spew from that haggard old witch’s mouth was just one step too far. Says an awful lot about how they think the battle should and should not be commemorated, let’s be honest here.

    • Scott Manning Jul 12, 2013 @ 2:46

      For what it’s worth, I have spent little time thinking about DKG’s speech. It was a non-event for me. In fact, I never heard anyone at the battlefield even mention it. I’ll recall things such as getting up at 4:00 AM to get to the battlefield, standing in the rain on East Cavalry Field, and smoking cigars on Emmitsburg Rd before Pickett’s Charge for the rest of my life. I’ll forget about DKG’s speech.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013 @ 2:52

        Just for the record, I am not asking whether you or anyone else who was there or watched at home will remember or forget it. I am asking what you thought of the way DKG framed the memory of the battle and the war.

        • Scott Manning Jul 12, 2013 @ 4:57

          I hear you. And I know you’re spurring discussion and bringing focus to memory. However, this whole thing has me thinking. Fifty years from now, someone is going to write a Blight-type book on the Sesquicentennial, which will inevitably bring focus to speeches such as DKG’s. Yet, I think it will be an unbalanced focus, as most people probably had a similar experience to Garry at Gettysburg. DKG was simply a non-event. That in turn has me thinking that our focus on speeches at these sorts of events over the past 150 years is also unbalanced. Perhaps the attendees did not care as much as we do after the fact.

          • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:00

            That in turn has me thinking that our focus on speeches at these sorts of events over the past 150 years is also unbalanced.

            Does this include Lincoln’s speech?

            I am not sure why we have to worry about balance at all. DKG gave the keynote address for a well-orchestrated commemorative event to mark the 150th anniversary of what most Americans believe to have been the most important events of the entire Civil War if not all American history. It is as much a part of the fabric of this commemorative event as the Pickett’s Charge walk.

            • Scott Manning Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:08

              Does this include Lincoln’s speech?

              No, I’m talking about reunions and anniversaries. And obviously, I’m generalizing.

              I am not sure why we have to worry about balance at all.

              I don’t know if “worry” is the right word. Let me put it this way–You have emphasized that DKG’s speech would be unidentifiable to those who originally fought at Gettysburg. Likewise, DKG’s speech is forgotten by the majority of the thousands who attended the 150th.

              • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:11

                Fair enough, but again, I am simply asking what people thought of a keynote address. Of course most people have already forgotten it and it will likely be of interest only to historians in 50 years, but why should that matter as a precondition to discussing it 11 days later?

          • Upset Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:18

            DKG was not a non-event, and i’ll have you know that most of the attendees were completely shocked and stupified (i was THERE!). Also many media outlets who interviewed people mentioned this in their articles. Have you ever considered that the reason why (in your and Garry’s opinion) not many people seemed to care, is because they were simply left SPEECHLESS? It wasn’t until a while after the event that people started talking, when they had had time to fully digest what was (and wasn’t) said. DKG speech was a disgrace, and she dishonored the 7000+ men that died here. Her speech was wholly innappropriate (and ESPECIALLY at such a major event) and by calling it a non-event you are sorely missing the point. Maybe people like you just don’t care as much as other people as to how this event should have been commemorated. Maybe you should try visiting one of the many many sites out there devoted to explaining the train-wreck that was DKG, to get some understanding. This was the NPS/Foundation’s moment to shine (the “signature event” of the whole 10-day commemoration – their words, not mine!!!), and they should have had somebody like Allen Guelzo or James McPherson. They made a BIG mistake by letting a Progressive speak (especially an ANTI-WAR progressive), as you don’t bite the hand that feeds….basically what i am saying is the biggest donors in any organization are always right-wingers, and i have already spoken to several who will not be giving the Foundation their intended donation now. She also upset a lot of veterans by her anti-war stance, who, in case you don’t know, make up a considerable percentage of the visitors that make the journey to Gettysburg each year. Yeah, sounds like a total non-event doesn’t it?

            • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:23

              They made a BIG mistake by letting a Progressive speak (especially an ANTI-WAR progressive)… She also upset a lot of veterans by her anti-war stance, who, in case you don’t know, make up a considerable percentage of the visitors that make the journey to Gettysburg each year.

              What do you mean? DKG’s own son fought in Iraq/Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star. Way to go in completely disrespecting a military family.

              • Upset Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:28

                Her son being in the military has nothing to do with it. He had the choice as a free person to do what he wanted. What are you trying to tell me that he needed mommy’s permission before he signed up? Let’s stay on topic here….

                • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:29

                  Have you ever hear her talk about her son’s service? No, because if you had you would not have made such a ridiculous statement.

                  • Upset Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:32

                    Again, let’s stay on topic here.

                    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:32

                      You made the claim. I have no problem if you want to criticize DKG’s speech, but let’s keep such baseless claims out.

                    • Upset Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:44

                      OK that’s fine. But she WAS (by her own words that night) an anti-war activist in the 60s and that has p*ssed off a lot of ‘Nam Vets. If she wasn’t so far up her own butt then maybe she wouldn’t have mentioned that…that would have been the smart thing to do. But these progressives cannot see past their own narcissism. It’s truly sad.

                    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:49

                      Look, I am someone you would probably label as “Progressive” and I have expressed serious reservations with DKG’s speech. So, can we dispense with the political labels and stay on topic?

                    • Upset Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:55

                      No, not really. Why avoid the subject? It was a POLITICAL speech that she gave. SHE made it about politics, not me. ‘Kay? And if you were truly progressive as you say, then i do not think you would be finding fault with anything she said. Doesn’t make sense.

                    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:57

                      You’ve expressed your problems with the speech. Let’s move on.

                    • Upset Jul 12, 2013 @ 6:05

                      Dear Upset,

                      I have very little patience for visitors who, for whatever reason, lack the courage to comment under their name. You chose to hurl and insult at a military family and I called you on it. You are free to voice your political opinions on another site or on your own. This is my site and you are a visitor. You will not be allowed to post any additional comments on this topic.

                      Good day.

                      Kevin Levin

      • Phil Spaugy Jul 12, 2013 @ 5:28

        I agree. While she chattered on I spent my time deep in thought, sitting on the hillside watching dusk come over Cemetery Ridge and the Round Tops. The procession to the National Cemetery behind the Old Guard, and experiencing the luminaries there transcended anything she had to say. Perhaps she should have talked about baseball.

  • Rich Jul 11, 2013 @ 8:47

    Oops it was a reply to upset!!!

  • Rich Jul 11, 2013 @ 8:31

    Kevin I agree with you wholeheartedly. The NPS and especially the Friends of Gettysburg Foundation have A LOT to do with what is turning into a Liberal Love Fest. Everyone I know who had any concept of what was going on we’re completely turned off. Don’t bother going to the Battlefield museum because you will be much more upset than you are right now!!!

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2013 @ 8:45


      I don’t know why you are referring to me with this comment.

  • Rich Jul 11, 2013 @ 8:26

    Doris Kearns Goodwin ruined it for me. I planned to go out there but decided not to. I cannot stand history revisionism and what the Liberal Left is doing to Gettysburg. I love that town but people like Kearns Goodwin are driving people like me away in droves.

  • Garry Adelman Jul 11, 2013 @ 5:27

    Thanks, Scott. btw, I think see you on the US Regs Monument on my Taps video.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 11, 2013 @ 5:43

      Hi Garry,

      So, what did you think of DKG’s address? Better yet, what did you think of it in context with everything else you experienced over the course of the week. Did it compliment it in any way? Curious as to what somebody on the ground and immersed in the history and memory of the battle thinks. Thanks.

      • Upset Jul 11, 2013 @ 7:59


        I’m not a Licensed Battlefield Guide and i do not possess Garry’s intimate knowledge, but i AM very knowledgeable about the Civil War, particularly Gettysburg, and as a local i also immerse myself in the history and memory of the battle on a daily basis. Much more important than that though, i have a brain, good taste, and respect. DKG sadly has none of these traits. If you ask almost anyone, her progressive, agenda-driven, self-congratulatory speech was way off-the-mark. I’m still thoroughly disgusted and shocked even after 12 days. She’s a complete moron. However, i do not think she can be held FULLY responsible because i am sure the liberal NPS/Foundation had something to do with it.

  • Scott Manning Jul 10, 2013 @ 4:53

    I totally agree with Garry’s sentiments. The whole time was enthralling, especially Pickett’s Charge. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

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