When the tourist buses leave, quiet descends and shadows begin to fall over the battlefields. A hush falls over the land, and it’s hard not to speak in whispers. It is also difficult to fight back the tears. Gettysburg is a stark reminder of another time, when the air was filled with smoke and cries echoed on the wind.
At least that’s how I imagine it. And those were my feelings last year in Gettysburg. The land was beautiful then, alight with the new growth of young grasses waving in the breeze and flowers blooming in the sun. And monuments. The monuments are both small and grand, sited haphazardly, it seems, on plots of ground that must have great meaning to the survivors of the men who fought here.
It’s a somber place in the late afternoon as the sun begins to move low over the western horizon. Battlefields are always somewhat difficult to visit. Civil War battlegrounds are especially sobering. They are smaller than expected, making it easy to imagine facing an enemy up close and personal and terrible to think about that reality.
The fields of Gettysburg, though, are expansive; the hills roll on into the distance; split timber fences delineate the fields, defining various encounters between Union and Confederate forces, and even driving through the area takes time. I felt compelled to walk among the monuments, to read the inscriptions, to wonder about the units they honored, and to think about the men who died on that ground.
Battlefields have a peculiar pull, no matter where I encounter them, and I have walked silently among the ghosts on battle plains across the globe, from the Little Big Horn to the beaches of Normandy, from the Golan Heights to Glorieta, New Mexico. I have also meandered among the headstones of military cemeteries in this country and in other nations, wondering about the lives of the men buried there, and about their survivors.
I always come away from battlefields with a sense of wonder that no matter how bloody the battle, the earth itself recovers from war relatively quickly. It is much more difficult for the people.
So today – Decoration Day was first celebrated on May 30, 1868 – at 3 p.m., the traditional hour of remembrance, I remember that battle fought long ago in Pennsylvania, and all the other battles of the Civil War and the wars that followed. Whether it’s now called Memorial Day or Remembrance Day or Poppy Day, I like to think that we are moving toward a time when battles will no longer be the way to resolve differences, when our children’s children can walk confidently into a future that only honors servicemen and women who died long-ago.
I thought about all of that yesterday as I enjoyed burgers and bratwurst, potato salad and apple pie with a small group of friends. It was a long weekend, after all, and it’s always good to be with friends and to share good food.
But today, because this is the real Memorial Day, I once again remember the fallen soldiers and those members of the armed services who still are called to give their lives in the service of their country.
The Civil War took more lives than any other this country has fought. We can debate, from the comfort of our time a century and a half removed, the issues that led to that war and that provoke other wars, but we cannot deny the consequences. And we must not forget that good and noble men fought on both sides. Warriors have left grieving families in all the battles since. It is good to pay homage to sacrifice like that.
Now, more than ever before, it seems imperative that we learn from our past. We can then move on to the task of writing the future the way we want it to be.