We arrived just after sunset in what seemed to be typical Smalltown, USA. Shamefully, I had no solid knowledge about the history of Gettysburg before our visit. I knew, of course, that an important battle had been fought there during the Civil War and Lincoln had given his famous speech somewhere in a cemetery close by. Other than that, I had no clue.
But I wasn’t totally ignorant of our country’s history. Being Revolutionary War reenactors for almost ten years, my husband and I had visited and ‘fought’ on many battlefields in the Northeast. From shouldering muskets to firing cannon, we recreated, along with hundreds of other living history enthusiasts, many defining moments in the birth of our nation. To me, Gettysburg was another town with yet another battlefield. I was wrong.
After a long day of driving down from the Boston area, my husband and I were finally able to kick back on the balcony of our room. A refreshing breeze swayed the treetops along the horizon. The moon, a sliver of ghostly white, floated against a darkening sky while a few early stars poked through like pinholes to another world. I settled back in my chair and sipped my cold wine. I looked at the horizon again. It wasn’t happening. The stress of hours of highway travel was not melting away. In fact, a strange unease unlike anything I had ever felt crept into my core. I took another, longer sip and a deep cleansing breath. To my surprise, it only made it worse. It seemed that each breath infused me with a miasma of despair.
“So, when are we leaving?” I blurted. I’ve always loved to travel and explore, so dropping this question moments after arriving was out of character.
“Day after tomorrow”, my husband replied. “I figure that’ll give us enough time to look around here. Why?”
“I don’t know. Just curious”, I lied. I couldn’t have been happier if he’d said ‘as soon as you finish your wine’.
I chalked up my uneasiness to jangled highway nerves and told myself that dinner at a bright and busy restaurant will chase away the oogy woogies. Wrong again. Waitresses scurrying with loaded trays and babbling babies in high chairs were as ineffective as the wine. The bright lights weren’t cheery or reassuring at all, and seemed glaring and intrusive. A good night’s sleep, I thought, will hopefully put an end to the gloom.
The next morning did bring some relief and we set out to explore the battlefields of Gettysburg. We signed up for a guided tour with a park historian who’d drive us to each battlefield, which turned out to be a large chunk of the town. For a little more than three hours, we were a captive audience to stories of courage and horror. Mostly horror. We learned that in only three gruesome days, from July 1st to the 3rd, 1863, the town of Gettysburg gave witness to the bloodiest battle of the entire war.
One of the many spots of interest that our guide took us to was Little Round Top, the second highest hill on the battlefield. We climbed its rocky slopes and scanned the view. Thousands of acres of battlefield lay below, now allocated to the National Park Service and preserved much as it was during the war. Fields, valleys and ridges could be clearly seen for miles. Humble farms dotted the landscape, giving way to haunting images as the guide told stories of families rounding up whatever livestock they could and fleeing for safety in the early hours of July 1st.
Two days later, there were over 50,000 military casualties, dead, wounded and missing. The carnage was so extensive, soldiers talked of running over the bodies of both men and animals during the fight, their feet hardly touching the ground. Over 5,000 horses and mules were killed in the fight and then burned at battle’s end, the stench of their pyres hanging in the sultry air for weeks.
We learned the heart wrenching story of Jennie Wade, who bravely scurried up the basement steps from her family’s place of hiding to make bread. While kneading dough in the kitchen, a stray bullet pierced her heart. She was killed instantly at the age of twenty.
That day left me filled with shock and embarrassment. It was shameful what this country had so willingly done to itself, and for months I remained ashamed for something I had no part in. But a form of grief also came over me, grief for Jennie and men I had never met.
I easily imagined the bloated corpses of man and beast waiting for burial in the summer sun and the screaming, fear and agony as blood flowed and pooled in the grass. And my lessons were not yet over.
The next day we stopped at the visitor’s shop on our way out of town. Their inventory of books and artifacts did not disappoint us. But what we found in the back of the store was staggering. There, in boxes and barrels full to their brims, were genuine musket balls fired during those three days of hell. There were thousands, and more we were told, not yet discovered and pulled from the ground. I stood frozen, a few bullets gently rolling in the palm of my hand.
For me, those two or three bullets, along with the accounts given during our tour, illuminated one of life’s phenomena, the living bridge between the corporeal and the ethereal. At that moment, it felt like the walls of my mind were being pushed outward, expanded in order to take in a new level of understanding. I let the musket balls roll out of my hand and back into the barrel as I thought about Jennie, her bloodstained corset, and the stacks of bodies of animals and men.
There was more still, than musket balls left in this soil. Perhaps to that day, there were a number of undiscovered men, sons, brothers and fathers without a proper grave, moldering beneath the earth, the very earth beneath our feet. But these bodies and bullets were also mixed with blood, rivers of blood, and the tears of both the dying and their survivors. And it all remains in the soil.
Although the tears and blood have long since dried, they have, along with the dust of uniforms and bones, bonded with the stones, rocks and dirt. The screams and crying hang in the air, the very air I breathed that first night on the balcony. It was all too soon, too soon for it to fade quietly into the archives of the universe. Or, would that ever happen, I wondered? Had it been too much in one small space to ever really disperse to the point where the air would clear? Would these events taint this ground forever?
Although there is no way to ever know the answers to these questions, one thing became clear. Our life events leave an imprint on the earth and in its atmosphere. And what was also clear was that these imprints have the capacity to impact our impressions of a place. They needn’t always be fed from tragic events, far from it, but nevertheless they are there, waiting for us to feel them and to learn.
We will see that there is a relationship between us, the earth and the universe, if we choose to become aware and plug ourselves in to the soul of what is around us. And as we do, the imprints of our lives will be left in the ether for those in the future to discover. And for that, we must be mindful of what we will eternally leave behind.
Photos from Unsplash & Pixabay