Thursday, August 8, 2013


While I was in retreat, I read Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, a new book about the battle, by the historian Allen C. Guelzo. I had read some good reviews of it before, so I was eager to read it, especially since 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of that Civil War battle.

Actually, I listened to the book, unabridged, on my ipod. This is one that I should have read as a text, because there was so much detail of the movements of the battle that I found myself wanting to look at maps. I know many areas of that battlefield pretty well, and could visualize them, so that helped.

It’s a large and comprehensive book. While listening to it, I found myself reflecting on how central Gettysburg is as a location in my life.  I first remember coming up there with my Dad and a family friend, Vic Lewis and his son Vicky and two other children. I was nine or ten, and dressed in a white cotton sundress. Somewhere there is a photo of us standing on the steps of the Pennsylvania Monument.
I climbed around on the rocks of Devil’s Den in that dress, which by the end of the day was brown with the dust of the battlefield.
The details of the battle didn’t interest me at all in 1958, though I liked the Electric Map.

 Here's the building that housed the map as it looked in 1958.

Here's the map. You walked around it.
Different areas of the battle field lighted up during the narration of the battle . In 1958, no computers.

The Pennsylvania Monument

Then, in 1966, I came to college in Emmitsburg, just ten miles down the road. It was a high school history class trip to Gettysburg that introduced me to Mount Saint Mary’s and Saint Joe’s College in the first place, in the fall of 1964.
So I spent four years going into Gettysburg from Emmitsburg, on Friday night shopping trips and Saturday night mixers and frat parties at Gettysburg College, and numerous visits to the battlefield on late winter afternoons to watch the large herds of deer there.

 Winter view from Little Round Top - photo from

Then, Gettysburg disappeared from my life from 1970 until 1978, when I was back in Emmitsburg as a novice in the Daughters of Charity. Father Taggart, the priest who taught us several Theology classes, was a “Gettysburg Buff” and was planning to take us on a tour of the battlefield and give us a blow by blow description of the battle.  I can’t remember if he ever did – part of the novitiate I’ve blocked out. But I know I wasn’t the least bit interested in the details of the battle.
Then, in 1979, I went South – to Petersburg Virginia, and then, Charleston South Carolina.  All of the places I taught from 1979 to 1986 were inextricably linked to the Civil War.
Then, back up to Baltimore, to Seton and Seton Keough High Schools. During those years, I began to take my yearbook staffers to “Yearbook Camp” each summer at Gettysburg College. While the students were in class, I was living in the advisors’ quarters and driving all around the town. Those were the years I really got to know the area. During those years I read Michael Shaara’s book  The Killer Angels for the first time. 

Then, in 1999, I moved back to Emmitsburg to teach at The Mount.  Finally, I became downright interested in the Battle of Gettysburg.  Knowing the roads and the avenues, knowing the landmarks, I could visualize the movements of the battle.  I read The Killer Angels again and again.

It is only now, in 2013, that I really begin to grasp some of the other aspects of that battle: the human struggles, personality clashes of the officers; petty jealousies and ambitions and power plays, etc. I began to think about the complexity of the whole event. Even more poignant,  the terrible casualties.  The Electric Map never gave me any picture of the bodies – thousands of human beings and horses strewn all over that ground.  Imagine the days and weeks immediately after the battle; the burying of the dead.


Carolyn H said...

I live about 25 miles from Gettysburg and have gone there all my life--first with my history-nut parents, squeezed into the back of a Renault with my brother and sister. Now I visit on my own, mostly in the off-season. I've been hiking around the battlefield a lot recently, just studying the ground, its dips and bumps, and trying to imagine the tragedy of those three days in July. It's not easy to do because today the battlefield is so quiet. During the reenactments this year, I was at my family's farm with my siblings, and we could hear the cannons. That gave me chills, as I realized everyone who lived in this area during those days would have heard the sounds of the real battle, too.

Anne Higgins said...

Thanks so much for commenting, Carolyn! This imagining of the tragedy is what I have been doing since I read that Guelzo book.