[First posted 10/17/14]
The phrase “Pickett’s Charge” has always been a byword for futility, but you can’t really appreciate why until you see how vast and exposed the flat, open field is that Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s men were asked to first walk, then charge, across, straight into the face of thousands of Union troops who were waiting for them, half-sheltered by a long ridge and a stone wall looking directly down on the rebels’ progress. I made the walk, both out there to where the Southerners first gathered in the trees three-quarters of a mile away, and then back to the ridge, and even on a perfect autumn day, strolling just as quickly or slowly as I pleased, and with no one raining hell-fire down upon me, it seemed to go on forever. Funny thing, though. Despite the scores of tourists that were also there that day, not one other soul took advantage of this chance of a lifetime; every time I paused to look back toward them I could see people on the ridge staring at me as if I were a madman swimming out to sea.
Earlier in the day I’d visited the spot in Gettysburg’s military cemetery where Lincoln is said to have delivered the Gettysburg Address. There was no one there either when I arrived, but at least in that case there was a reason for it: the placard identifying the spot is so vaguely worded that it sounded like the speech was given at some point farther along the path. Once I figured it out, though, I sat down on one of the benches next to the monument, pulled up the text of the speech on my phone, read it for what must’ve been the hundredth time, and then put my phone away and simply stared at the monument and the space around it, not thinking directly about Lincoln or his words, but just feeling their presence and meaning come and go in waves. Eventually another straggler rolled up, a businessman about my age who began fiddling with his camera. Suddenly his phone rang, and he not only took the call, he set his phone down on the base of the monument and put it on speaker-phone so that the space around us was filled by the squawking voice of a woman asking him about some business matter as he paced back and forth yelling his answers into the open air. I gave him 30 seconds or so to wrap it up, but he didn’t—he continued on with the call while still fiddling with his camera. So I yelled over to him, asking him pointedly but still semi-politely to move away if he had to take the call. He didn’t even look at me. I barked something else, I don’t recall what, but this time it wasn’t polite, and he ignored me again. So I lost it. I yelled “Hey!” at him, and suddenly he turned and began walking towards me, calling out “What? What?” I told him (in these words) that this was no place for him to take a fucking phone call and that he should get the hell away from there, but he was still saying “What?” and bearing down on me. That sounds more threatening than the moment actually was—neither one of us was looking for a fight—and right now I think he was just thoughtless or maybe even a foreigner or hard of hearing, because he did begin apologizing and, after scooping up his things, he moved about 30 yards up the path, where I could see him glancing back at me.
And so it was on the field where Pickett’s men died. Standing 500 yards out on the battlefield is a totally different experience than standing on the ridge: you can’t hear any of the tourists’ chatter for one thing, and even the sound of the RVs and buses is blown away by the wind, so that all you can hear are crickets and birds and the sound of your feet brushing through the grass. Likewise, looking down on the field from the ridge is one thing, but looking up at it, especially when you’re moving toward it from a distance, and seeing what had been mere dots swelling into human beings above you, gives you a different perspective on what happened that day. During much of this trip—and even today—I’ve been pleased to see my countrymen visiting the places where so many of our formative experiences went down, but almost always there’s still a final barrier, an impermeable layer of incuriosity, in their refusal to not simply conceive of the past, but to surrender to it. Okay, so they don’t want to make that long slog all the way across the field and back, and who can blame them? It tired me out, too. But to not even climb down from the ridge and wander 10 or 20 dinky little yards onto the grass so as to feel what it’s like to have that ground under their feet? Why do they go there at all?