How Gettysburg Did Not Unlock the Past
Tour guides and museums are all well and good, but history truly comes alive to us in the most unexpected ways—sometimes just in the smell of old family letters.
My family and I went to Gettysburg one recent Saturday afternoon. We spent time in the bustling visitor center, then took a spin through the packed Civil War museum. We had a picnic under an acorn tree in the midst of the monuments and battlefields as tour groups on bicycles, Segways, and bright red electric three wheelers whizzed by. After lunch, we watched red-faced reenactors in authentic wool uniforms execute maneuvers and fire black-powder blanks out of their muskets in the tall grass.
Later, my older sister and daughter practiced some climbing technique on the base of the imposing monument to General George Meade, who led the Union forces against Lee’s invaders. We took a brief swing through downtown past overflowing gift shops with names like “Irish Brigade,” where we saw an elderly re-enactor, with Santa Claus beard, spectacles and belly, emerge from an evocative ivy-covered porch in a handsome red-trimmed dark blue uniform and pull out his smart phone. As we left town, we drove by a file of genial young guys and gals sporting gift-shop issue “kepis”—the iconic flat top, short-brimmed hat of the Civil War soldier—some grey, some blue.
In short, if we hadn’t quite stumbled into a George Saunders story à la Civil War Land in Bad Decline (everything we saw at Gettysburg was well kept up!), we had most certainly stepped into one of Tony Horwitz’s essays in Confederates in the Attic, his brilliant, raucous book about visiting famous Civil War sites and battlefields. Which is to say that our day at Gettysburg was fun but a little exhausting: the past viewed from the enervating confines of a start and stop traffic jam.
I hadn’t suggested we go to Gettysburg out of the blue. My most recent novel tells the tale of a woman who disguises herself as a man and goes to fight for the Union army. The book is done and heading to print but my fascination for 19th century America continues to burn brightly. Going to Gettysburg was another in a long line of attempts, some more successful than others, to feel my way back there. I had much better luck at Bull Run and Antietam, both famous battle sites to be sure, but ones that didn’t, at least the times I visited, have nearly as much voluble present around to distract from the past.
I took a long, looping walk almost alone around Bull Run. The sun was hot, the breeze was slight, the view was largely unobstructed; I felt something intense when I came to the place where “Stonewall” Jackson sat his horse unmoving during the height of the battle and earned that nickname; I shivered when I came up close to the line of silent cannons.
I did a lot of my growing up on a farm in rural Indiana and became used to this kind of unimpeded access to the past. When I return to the farm, which has been in my family since the 1840s, the past swamps me. I grow dreamy and distant. The place is full of talismans. Some of them, like the arrow and axe heads dug out of the fields over the years, point to the much older presence of native Americans in the region. Others, like the box of Civil War era letters we have, take me straight to the center of my preoccupations: the place, for me, out of which a significant number of my novels have grown.
The plain wooden box was lost for many years. My sister found it in the back of one of the farmhouse closets. The letters have little to say of great moment about the War but they are rich in detail and the desire to return. They have become very beautiful over the 150 years since they were written. The edges of the elegant paper are crackled; the ink bled into the linen weave long ago and has not faded. We sometimes lay them out on my grandmother’s dining room table and let the past climb up out of them. Like at Bull Run, when I am in the presence of those old family letters, I am transported. For a moment the past comes alive to me, or I come alive to the past. In a few days I will return to the farm, get those letters out, sit at my grandmother’s table and see what happens.
We all come to the past on our own terms. And I know that not everyone wants to “feel” the past anyway. Maybe most just want to know about it, to be informed, which has its own deep value. And even if others are after that feeling of transport I am so often looking for, they might well get to it just as easily as I can through Visitor Center films, or brightly lit museum displays, or the amplified lips of the headset-wearing tour guide, looking over her shoulder as she leads her Segway past the site of Pickett’s famous charge.
As for me, I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a glimpse or two of what I was seeking at Gettysburg. It’s a beautiful and powerful place, the site of one of our nation’s greatest struggles, a three-day crucible of death and sorrow and lasting suffering. As we were driving away, I caught a glimpse of the soldier’s cemetery shining in the sunlight. Just a few of the rows and rows of tombs were visible through the trees, but that was all it took to lead me back: that glance in passing.
Laird Hunt is the award-winning author of a book of short stories and five novels, most recently, Kind One (2012), a finalist for both the 2013 Pen/Faulkner Award and the 2013 Pen USA Literary Award in Fiction and the winner of a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. Currently on the faculty in the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program, where he edits the Denver Quarterly, Hunt has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and was in residence at Marfa (Lannan Foundation) this past summer.