One hundred and fifty years ago this week a battle was fought in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the likes of which no American army had known before, nor has known since. It lasted three days, beginning on July 1st with the doomed Picket’s Charge, and ending, mercifully, on the night of July 3rd with a casualty count of 46,286. For days and weeks the bodies of Confederate dead lay rotting in the fields where they fell, while the Union dead were buried in a massive gravesite. Families lost sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers on both sides. Several days later President Abraham Lincoln made a speech that lent morale to a force that had nearly given up before the battle. Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War, and had it gone to the Confederacy, the outcome of the war might’ve been different.
Recently, there have been a lot of TV spots about Gettysburg and its significance. A lot of them have had someone visit the battle site now, or run B-roll of the reenactments or the site on its normal days. One thing that’s struck me from all the tv spots I’ve seen was that so many people remarked on how tranquil Gettysburg is now. They’ll show some film of the open field, empty but for some fences designed to recreate the look of 1863, and a reporter will talk about how calm it is when the ground was soaked with the blood of nearly 50,000 people. This isn’t a new trend in talking about battle sites many years later. I heard it when I visited Gettysburg, I heard in when I visited Shiloh, I’ve heard it at nearly every battlefield I’ve been to (and believe me I’ve been to a lot). But this has always baffled me. Did they expect the battle to still be raging? Did they expect the ghosts of the soldiers to still be shooting at each other, though no bullets could harm them now? Did they expect constant thunder?
Of course the battle sites are tranquil, these battles have been over for centuries. I don’t mean to belittle the feelings of those reporters, but I don’t understand them. I find the tranquility to be a better memorial to those who fell there than any plaque could be. It reminds me that everywhere could have been a battlefield at one time. It reminds me that people died in every corner of the earth, but they don’t all get a memorial, and they don’t all get remembered.
Instead of thinking about the weird things that have happened in history today, I think we should take these days leading up to the anniversary of the founding of our nation to remember those who have lived before us. I think we should examine why we go to war, as nations, and as individuals, and recognize that they are often very complicated.