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A belated first visit to hallowed grounds

A long belated trip to Gettysburg stirs emotions and a renewed appreciation for those who gave the  “last full measure of devotion" during the Civil War to create the particular nation dynamic that we  still strive for today— equality among all people. NBC News Mike Taibbi reports from Gettysburg, PA.
Mark W. Lang of Huntingdon, Pa., dresses in his authentic Union Army Captain's uniform before marching with the 20th Main, during the 23rd Annual Gettysburg Civil War Heritage Days in Gettysburg, Pa. on Saturday, June 25, 2005, at the Gettysburg National Military Park. Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: NBC News

GETTYSBURG, PA - Just after five in the morning an angular Ohio man named Darl Stephenson emerged from a fold-over pup tent and stretched to his full height, bearing a tin cup filled with coffee. 

Dressed in the blue woolen uniform of the Army of the Potomac, he spotted me and came over to talk, explaining without prompting that the Park Service was allowing a live-fire demonstration — not a battle re-enactment — for later in the day. 

“We’re the 20th Maine,” he said, gesturing behind him to the dozen or so tents pitched in a swale a few yards from the towering Pennsylvania Memorial. “I’m the unit’s first lieutenant.” 

I looked at him in the soft first light of the morning.  His face, beneath his soiled well-used cap, showed lines of wear and time punctuated by a spiky unkempt mustache that looked like it was made of straw. He was about my age, somewhere north of 50. Old for the lieutenant’s role, I thought, though his appearance seemed authentic enough. 

“So what brings you here so early?” he asked. I didn’t answer right away. Then, “Say, are you all right?”

I wasn’t sure what I was, except overwhelmed. I’d awakened two hours earlier, mind racing with thoughts and images following a tour of the battlegrounds the day before. 

It had been my first visit to Gettysburg, we’d found a guide named Ray Hinchey who’d spent the whole of an afternoon in energetic and detailed descriptions of one impossibly deadly engagement after another.  

“51,000 casualties,” Hinchey had said as we stood on the edge of the Wheatfield, “here alone, on the second day, some 6,000 in less than two hours. This is your tour,” he added for the fifth time or so, worried that I wasn’t enjoying his presentation. “You tell me what you want to do.” 

I told him that after years of reading about the Civil War, of knowing many of the characters, details, and chronology, it was unbelievable to me that as a reporter and a New Yorker I’d never actually come to this place until now.  “I just want to be here, to sort of stand in certain places, and imagine…” I’d said as a stumbling explanation. 

I told him that I knew about this spot, and about the Peach Orchard and Seminary Ridge and Little Round Top, and the fields where Pickett’s Charge was repulsed, the tides of war and American history turning on that third day, July 3rd, 1863.

“I don’t know,” I’d said to Hinchey, “to think of what actually happened here… to kind of see it…” He nodded, mentioned that he’d once been a history teacher, and flipped over his battlefield map in advance of his next monologue. “You’re doing great,” I said and we all got back in the car.

Why now?
I really can’t say what made me come to Gettysburg.  My wife’s parents were visiting from Ireland, and as a child-molestation trial I’d been covering in California had just concluded after some five months (need I mention which trial?) we’d thought to re-visit Amish country in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County,  where we’d had a wonderful experience years before. 

For some reason, searching the net for guest houses that were pet-friendly (we’d be traveling with our aged pug), I paused at a listing near Gettysburg.  

I suggested it to my wife, Siobhan, as a starting point. We passed some reading material onto her folks, Mick and Josie Walsh from County Limerick, showed them the Gettysburg episode from Ken Burns’ epic series “The Civil War,” and there we were. Hinchey chattering non-stop in the front passenger seat, cruising slowly around the 25 square miles of the hallowed ground where two exhausted American armies clashed in the bloodiest battle ever on American soil in order to decide what kind of America would emerge from the unspeakable carnage they visited upon one another. 

When our tour ended Siobhan had said, “Every American school child should see this. Actually experience it.”

Moment to take it all in
The next morning I awoke knowing I needed to see more. Right away, alone, with no other tourists around me, and no guide trying to explain the inexplicable. 

I paused at fence lines and hilltops and watched the sun rise over a field where, it was said, in the aftermath of the fighting you could walk straight across stepping from body to body, your feet never touching the blood-soaked soil. 

On Seminary Ridge, looking over that field from beneath the North Carolina monument, I thought of the words of a brigade commander from that state, Isaac Avery, as he lay dying in a field hospital after a musket ball had torn through his throat.  Unable to speak, he scribbled a note to his second, Major Samuel Tate.  “Please tell my father that I died with my face to the enemy.” 

I thought of the outmanned infantrymen of the 20th Maine of Darl Stephenson’s ardor, fixing bayonets for hand-to-hand combat and knowing most of their number would fall, but pounding down the hill to defend crucial Little Round Top and the Union line by the slimmest and bloodiest of possible margins.

And, in that moment, alone on the ridge with my thoughts and Isaac Avery’s words, and with the sound in my head of clashing bayonets, Gettysburg got me. 

It consumed me with its broad and timeless truth:  that while “a great civil war” had been fought over a divide insoluble by any means but war, those claimed by that war, 600,000 in just four years, all of them — each and every one of them — had given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” 

It was the devotion that mattered, that marked the patch of America where I stood, and where I suddenly found myself trembling in unexpected emotion, outside of myself and, instead, inside the living, dying roaring middle of my own American history. 

And I sat on my haunches, unable to stand for long moments, overpowered by a past suddenly come alive.  Face in my hands, I heard myself sobbing.

Civil War fought over principle
Later, driving back to rejoin Siobhan and her folks, it struck me as odd that both Stephenson and Hinchey, two men for whom the “great civil war” is both an avocation and a constant daily companion, had been reluctant to discuss the “issue” that ignited the war: chattel slavery. 

“We try to avoid talking the politics of it,” Stephenson had said.  “Just makes things more complicated.  Awkward sometimes.  It’s just about the bravery of what all these men went through,” he said.

I’d asked Hinchey the day before, “As a history teacher, do you know of another nation’s civil war that wasn’t fought over turf or economic control but over a principle, like slavery or its abolition?”  He’d been stumped.  “I should have an answer for you, I know that,” he’d said.  “I can do some research, and get back to you…”

I’d told him it wasn’t necessary, and it wasn’t. 

I’m no historian, just a scribbler and a reporter who for nearly four decades has taken seriously the reporter’s role of writing “the first draft of history.” 

From wars to corruption to disasters to, yes, the trial of Michael Jackson, I’ve tried to take good notes and faithfully and dispassionately communicate what it is I’ve learned. 

So I’ll nod to the genuine historians who’ve made the point again and again that the “great civil war” was necessary to create this particular nation… and the elusive national dynamic of perfect equality among its people, a dynamic still pursued and defended by so many willing to give the “last full measure of devotion.”

Need to experience it
But I’ll tell you that Siobhan, an Irishwoman fiercely in love with her own country and its history, was right. Every American child should go to Gettysburg.  “Actually experience it,” as she said.

And every adult too who, like me, never got around to it.  Who thought reading about it or seeing the occasional movie or documentary was the same as knowing about it. 

The knowing might not happen on that first visit. There may be too many people around, too many distractions. 

Even Stephenson said his initial visit as an Ohio schoolboy, on a class trip, was a waste.  “It was actually the end of our trip, and we’d arrived after a couple days in New York City.  We were wiped out.  I looked at all the monuments and thought, ‘what a bore.’”

But Stephenson had returned later and, as I had, found a way to stand alone in the footprints of those whose terrible struggle made possible the new terms of the American experiment. 

Stephenson too had imagined the slaughter at the Devil’s Den, and the individual acts of truce and accommodation by the mortal enemies who filled their canteens at Spangler’s Spring under the cover of night, holding their fire until the certain hell of the next day. 

Stephenson looked toward the sun, higher now on the horizon beyond the killing fields.  “It’ll be hot, in these woolen uniforms,” he said.  “’Course, it was for them too.”  He asked me again if I was all right.  Through reddened eyes I said “Sure.  It’s just…l mean, it’s overpowering.”

He swallowed the last of the coffee in his tin cup, looked at me.  “Yes.  It is.”