Big week for Civil War geeks, as Gettysburg welcomes spotlight

For Civil War geeks, this week is like the Super Bowl.

I know, because I’m a card-carrying member of that clan.

Today is the 150th anniversary of the first day of the most pivotal battle of the American Civil War, Gettysburg. Nearly 100,000 people are expected to converge on that still-sleepy Pennsylvania town for re-enactments of the battle. I’ll be one of them. It’s been on my bucket list for a long time, being there for this.

I’m a peacable guy. I’ve never fired a gun. So why am I so endlessly moved and fascinated by this gruesome, grinding, long-ago conflict?

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Literally my first memory is of seeing the old Gettysburg battle map when I was 3. The next year, a family visit to Atlanta, and the cyclorama painting of the Battle of Atlanta, cemented the obsession. My kids still shake their heads – fondly, I hope – at memories of summer trips to the Carolina shore being diverted for quick side trips to battlefields.

I’d wander about happily, echoes of distant trumpets in my head, while my wife would mutter, “It just looks like a big grass field to me.”

No battle of the war is more rife with drama and poetry than Gettysburg.

For NewsWorks’ package on the battle anniversary, I wrote an essay that tried to pin down why I find the Civil War such a moving, resonant thing.

Here’s how it went, in part:

This was no push-button war of drones and precision bombs. It was intimate, hand-to-hand, ugly in the moment and horrific in the aftermath. The wounded moaned in the crumpled fields, and the surgeon’s saws grew dull from use.

It was chaos unleashed upon an ordinary Pennsylvania landscape – gentle ridges, a peach orchard, a wheat field, a warren of boulders known as Devil’s Den.

In the three days of Gettysburg, more Americans died than in the long anguish of the Iraq War. In three days, 52,000 either died, were wounded, taken prisoner or melted into the mist.

Michigan farm boys, Massachusetts clerks, cocky Irish from Brooklyn.

In dying, so horribly and in such droves, they saved the union, and bequeathed us our nation. That is why this battle anniversary matters. As the bearded man in the tall hat once said, this is why we must never forget.


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