It was one of those half serious suggestions we drop into conversation from time to time: “I’d love to spend time in Gettysburg someday.” My youngest son, Kevin, responded with “Let’s do it,” and on a Thursday in November eight of us made our way from scattered points to the Wyndham Hotel in Gettysburg. My two boys – Kevin and Corky – a friend of theirs, Tiger Kite, my brother Al and his wife, Ann, and Vermont Civil War historian Howard Coffin with his wife Sue.
It’s important to say that the fields that make up the scene of those battles are breathtaking in their simplicity, preserved as they were in 1862, rimmed with the original cannons and defined by fences built with an intricacy that kept soldiers from tearing them down. Howard Coffin is a 7th generation Vermonter who made the fields jump alive with quiet, powerful words. Without him, we would have been moved by the beauty, with him we were reduced to silence as he painted the picture of what happened wherever we stood.
On the first day he gave us an overview – where Lincoln stayed after coming in by rail, the road from Cashtown traveled by the incoming Confederate army, the arrival through the woods of the Union army, two farms where snipers hid to do their work. It was a framework of sorts, all building to Pickett’s Charge up to Cemetary Ridge.
We walked that day up the hill following the path of the Confederates toward the ridge they knew they had to take. They had marched up that hill shoulder to shoulder in lines four deep and a mile wide. Think about that for a minute. 14,000 southern men, most in their 20s marching up an open hill toward 12,000 northerners. 26,000 men in that open field and thousands dead by the time it was over. Lee had given the orders against the advice of General Longstreet, who ordered his troops to march by simply nodding his head. Convinced it couldn’t work, Longstreet was unable to put the order into words. And when it was over, Lee coming back down the hill, said to his men, “it was my fault.” Lee and Lincoln, two great men, each believing he was right.
As we stood in that beautiful, quiet Pennsylvania field, the final figure of the three day battle at Gettysburg was impossible to grasp: 50,000 young Americans dead,, buried in trenches where they fell. I had never before imagined such a blend of beauty and death.
Some days later, things we learned keep coming back. The long, low stone walls, most of them about a foot high, seemed far too low to protect the advancing soldiers until Howard reminded us that the profile of a soldier lying on the ground is no higher than that. The trouble came when they couldn’t dismantle the sturdy fences and had to stand up to climb over them in order to advance. Standing tall, they were mowed down – by reloading rifles, by canon balls that had fuses timed to explode at a certain distance, by swords at close range.
At dinner one night, we talked about the many sided question of whether the war was about slavery, the expansion of it to the territories, the more broad issue of states’ rights, or an amalgam of all of it. It was at that point that Howard Coffin began to talk about Lincoln. With a catch in his voice, he explained that Lincoln, had seen slaves in chains when he was young, hated what he saw, and was determined to free every slave but knew he could never garner support for the cause of abolition. He presented the war as necessary for the preservation of the union which was the cause that could – in the American way – be sold to the country and the Congress. And there it was, a deeply emotional theory that resonates in today’s political climate. Lincoln had to cover the morality of abolition with a politically acceptable motive.
I loved being with my family and a new friend who, in full Civil War enthusiasm had driven all the way from Cincinnati to join us. I loved learning from a man as impassioned as Howard. It’s just a guess, and a hope, that Kevin is already planning the next trip.