The bags are all unpacked and put away. The laundry is done and put away. The toys are played with, new books read, t-shirts worn. Gettysburg 2013 is in the books. But the moments still linger on, relived every time “Why Can’t We Be Friends” pops in my head again, every time I see the Union soldier hat on my boy’s head, every time I see Elisabeth’s 1860’s doll on her bed. We had such a great trip. Not quite exactly how we planned, perhaps, but whatever is exactly how we plan?
Gettysburg 2013, in moments:
* The excitement of pulling out of the driveway. What excitement parallels the thrill of knowing vacation is here, we’re finally on our way!!
* The excitement I felt as hour after hour passed in the van and my kids were not going crazy, not fighting, not crying. Between me and Nanny Sheryl, they ended up with more “in-the-van” activities than they could use up in three 9 hour car rides, but it was working. They were actually enjoying the road trip, which was a huge goal of mine for this trip.
* The plan actually working: we made good enough time to arrive at the hotel in time to swim before bed. It’s the little things that make us happy when we have this many children traveling together.
* Monday morning: vacation begins. A visit to the Visitor’s Center Museum for the movie and Cyclo-rama that set the tone for the whole week. It’s not just a vacation anymore. It’s a battlefield, hallowed ground. Over 6000 men died here in just three days, exactly 150 years ago. The sacredness begins to set in.
* We began the auto tour. It’s July 1, 1863 and July 1, 2013 at the same time. We stand in the spot, on the day, at the hour, where the battle began. We look out over mostly undisturbed battlefield, and we can almost see the men among the grasses.
* We walk around the soldiers’ camp on the Lutheran Seminary Grounds, or Seminary Ridge. We see the camp cook, blacksmith, musicians. We eat hardtack, just like the soldiers did.
* Tuesday morning: we continue on the auto tour, getting out at Lee’s statue at the starting point of the fateful Pickett’s charge. We see Mead’s statue and the copse of trees about a mile in front of us, the goal of the men who made the charge that day. The fields are clear in front of us. Little Round Top is off in the distance, and we can imagine the cannon shells flying from the Union soldiers there, decimating the Rebel lines as they struggled across the field toward their mark.
* The weight of the occasion hits hard as stop after stop on the tour is too crowded to even park and get out. Little Round Top and Devil’s Den are crawling with people just like us who have made the trek for this commemoration. Over 200,000 are expected. We circle around twice and have to move on without stopping.
* At the Pennsylvania Memorial another camp is set up, a Union camp. We see the hospital tent, the surgeon’s tent with its pile of amputated limbs, then the embalming and burial tent right next door. Too many men made the progression to all three tents.
* We are in the right place at the right time to finally see what the boys have been waiting for: the “mans dressed up just like soldiers shooting the guns.” The infantry is ready to do a demonstration. The boys both say this was their favorite part.
* We get out at the copse of trees that we had seen from across the field that morning. We see the field Pickett charged from the other viewpoint. This is the High Water Mark. This is the closest the Confederacy came to winning the war. Some of them made it across the field, over that stone wall, only to be surrounded by the Union soldiers and fall in the Bloody Angle. Less than half made it back unscathed, and Lee rode out to meet them, saying, “It was all my fault.” We are standing in the Bloody Angle. We are at the High Water Mark. From this point, the battle was over. The war was over, too, though it took two more years of fighting to make it official. The sacredness of the location is palpable. Of course we are glad the Union won, the Union was preserved, slavery was abolished. But the Battle of Gettysburg forces you to feel the tragedy of the Civil War on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, and standing right there in that moment, you cannot feel anything but heavy-hearted.
* Wednesday morning: We decide to try Little Round Top and Devil’s Den again, and whether because of the earlier hour or the falling rain, they were much less crowded and we were able to get out and explore. We make our way to the monument marking the spot where the 20th Maine held strong, defending Little Round Top from the Confederate forces, as made famous in the movie Gettysburg. We climb to the top of the rocky hill and look down at Devil’s Den, from which point the Confederates were trying to take Little Round Top. This is no flat wheat field, easy to march across. This is a fairly steep hill, covered with rocks and boulders. It’s fairly obvious, standing there on the top, that whoever was on this high ground had the clear and unsurmountable advantage. We drive down the hill and stop again at Devil’s Den. Only the men get out here; the huge boulders are slippery from the rain. But we sit in the van and look back up the hill, and I shudder, picturing that hillside strewn with bodies of men who tried so hard to gain that strategic advantage.
* One more stop on the tour. Culp’s Hill saw the most fighting of any other location in Gettysburg. Over 12 hours of fierce fighting here on Day 2 and Day 3, the Union defending Cemetery Ridge and the high ground of Gettysburg. Wesley Culp grew up here, it is his family’s farm. But he left to join the Confederacy. His homecoming is as part of an enemy regiment. He dies here, on the hills of his childhood home, yet now an enemy. The tragic irony twisted my heart. Wesley Culp had somehow seen his childhood friend, Jack Skelly, a few days earlier. Jack was fighting for the Union but had been injured. He gave his friend Wesley a note, asked him to deliver it to his sweetheart, another of their childhood friends, Jennie Wade in Gettysburg. Wesley died without delivering the note, here on Culp’s Hill. Strangely, Jennie Wade also died in the battle, the only civilian to do so, when a bullet came through two doors into the kitchen where she was kneading bread. Jack Skelly died from his injuries about a week later. All three friends tragic casualties of war.
* Wednesday afternoon: we roam around downtown Gettysburg. A tour of the house where Jennie Wade was killed. A visit to the Sweeet! shop for snowcones and root beer. A tour of the Shriver House, the subject of a book Abigail had read before the trip and was really excited to see in person. We hear sirens going crazy all day, to find out later that two men had robbed a bank and led the police on a chase through downtown for two hours before they were caught. Unfortunately, they weren’t caught in time to prevent the cancellation of the parade scheduled for that evening, a huge disappointment for thousands of people.
* Thursday morning, July 4th: We finally make it to the last stop on the tour, the Evergreen Cemetery and Gettysburg National Cemetery. A fitting stop for the day after the battle. This is where over 3500 Union soldiers were buried after the battle, where Lincoln came in November and delivered the famous Gettysburg Address, and where Jennie Wade was finally buried, one of only two women to have an American flag flying 24/7 over her grave.
* Thursday afternoon: Back to the Visitor’s Center to let the kids explore the Family Activities Tent. They get to learn to march like soldiers, pretend to load their rifles and fire, dress up in soldier uniforms and 1800’s dresses, try out some medical devices, play some soldiers’ games. We pull out of Gettysburg for the last time.
* Thursday evening: dinner at the Olive Garden where we share our favorite moments of the trip. Each kid had some aspect of the battlefield experience that stood out in their mind. They may not have grasped everything, they may not remember everything, but something in Gettysburg impacted each one of them.
* We finish out the trip with the fireworks at Sovereign Stadium in York, Pennsylvania. Celebrating our country’s birthday in the place where it almost tore in two. Our vacation is over, but our hearts are full.
* This trip was made infinitely more special by sharing it with family. Walking the Gettysburg battlefields with my dad for our third trip there together. Hearing him make the fields come alive as he pointed out exactly where the stories happened. Watching the cousins walk hand in hand, just enjoying each other. Watching Elisabeth stick to my brother like glue, even insisting on wearing a matching bandana all week to be like Eric. Watching three little boys watch the soldiers in awe. Watching the big 16 year old guy being charmed by the 2 year old and the baby. My kids being loved on by their Nanny and Papa, and their aunt and their uncle. The trip wouldn’t have been what it was without the rest of our family there to share it with.
I am so grateful for Gettysburg 2013 and all its moments. Some vacations are just vacations. Others turn into benchmarks along life’s journey. Remember Hawaii? Remember Chicago? Now we can add Gettysburg to that benchmark list.