On the heels of our attendance at Hippiefest 2009, Nicky, her uncle Jeff, and I spent most of Friday at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Nicky and I had gone there once before with one of Nicky's former co-workers, only to be inundated by (1) heavy rain and (2) a platoon or three of Civil War "reenactors." Yesterday, the weather, though a bit on the warm side, was excellent and the "reenactors" absent. The number of visitors, even given that we came on a Friday in mid-Summer, was most impressive -- and the vast majority of them appeared to be non-foreigners. There's definitely a very healthy appetite out there for learning more about American history (the red-meat stuff, as opposed to the sometimes fringe-y overemphasis on hitherto "underrepresented groups"), and the "Gettysburg experience" has undergone a major transformation in response.
The last time Nicky and I went to Gettysburg, the slightly dowdy, somewhat down-at-the-heels visitor's center still featured the 40-year-old electric map that displayed the armies' movements during the three-day battle. The map has since been put in storage and a completely new visitor's center constructed. The new center, which opened in 2008, is a clever mixture: a building with all the modern accoutrements (full-service "refreshment saloon," big gift shop, etc.) inside, yet resembling a period building (in this case, a large barn and farmhouse complex) when viewed from the outside. The famous Gettysburg Cyclorama, showing a 360-degree panorama of the battlefield, has been spruced up and made the centerpiece of a son-et-lumiere show that tries to put the viewer in the middle of the action. Visitors can watch a History Channel-style film narrated by Morgan Freeman that describes the background and aftereffects of the battle, or browse at length in a well-appointed museum that includes such artifacts as General Lee's personal desk, cot, and medical chest and the jail door behind which John Brown awaited trial following his raid on Harper's Ferry. Thankfully, "tack" is kept to a minimum (apart from the magnetic finger-puppet Abe Lincolns in the gift shop), and there are ample opportunities for hands-on exploration, e.g., lifting a mock knapsack to "feel" how much a typical soldier had to carry on his back.
Little Round Top (Big Round Top in background), 1863
The Gettysburg battlefield itself is so huge that one really needs several days to do the whole thing justice. We decided to splurge on a two-hour, guided bus tour that would show us the high points. The guide turned out to know his stuff inside and out and did a fine job. We stopped to get out only once, but at a key place: the summit of Little Round Top, where one could see major features in a glance and get an idea of the ground on which the soldiers were fighting. Jeff and I discussed how the soldiers on both sides could possibly have braved it all given the fighting techniques of the day. We agreed that one key was that many units consisted of neighbors from individual towns and counties. When you're walking slowly forward while enemy soldiers are keeping up a steady frontal fire, you're not thinking about how you're doing all this to save the Union or free the slaves; you're simply focused on keeping your buddies as safe as possible. Such is true of all armies, I suppose, but it was especially true at that time, when soldiers literally did stand "shoulder to shoulder" and fight for one another.
A large number of people have claimed to have seen ghosts on Civil War battlefields, especially at Gettysburg. In his book RIGHT TURNS, Michael Medved tells how he and a college buddy once camped out at Gettysburg and saw a series of apparitions similar to the one shown above. I don't know where I stand on this issue, but I will say that if any battlefield in America should have ghosts, it should be Gettysburg. We're still dealing with the consequences of what those men did, so it only stands to reason that some of the departed should remain behind to keep an eye on our progress -- or lack thereof.