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Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Patrick's Impressions on this Historic Place

It was an important moment for me to stop in this place that saw the decisive battle of the American Civil War (1861-1865). The Gettysburg Battle took place from July 1-3, 1863. Although the war officially ended a few years later on April 9, 1865, the battle of Gettysburg was the pivotal moment that led to the victory of the Yankees. I don’t intend, through this blog, to give a history lesson or to pretend to understand the ins and outs of this war which pitted brother against brother. Instead, I'm going to give my impressions of the breathtaking battlefield and its incredible museum.

The view of the battlefields at Gettysburg.

You have to see the battlefield with your own eyes to appreciate the sheer scale of the theater of operations - over 6,000 acres, or more than 24 km2, of land preserved by the U.S. National Parks. I would have liked to have ridden through this battlefield on a horse tour, but it was not possible. We had to fall back on an air-conditioned bus (thank goodness because the temperature went up 34 degrees Celcius and even higher with the humidity) with a very experienced guide, and for two packed hours we saw the important places, made a few stops and took in the highlights. The bus was full of Americans from all over the country, and we were the only "foreigners" on the bus. The atmosphere in the bus was respectful, nothing divisive was being said by overenthusiastic Yankees or overzealous Southerners.

We met an American woman who, like us, had taken the museum bus to downtown Gettysburg. Sarah, an employee of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), based in Texas, was interested in our impressions (she gave the children a beautiful FEMA coin). It's such a small world... She told us that regardless of one's political allegiance, there was a consensus around the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg, namely that for Americans, the Battle was necessary to preserve the Union, its principles and values.

Our little man standing in front of the Union flag.

Walking on the battlefield gives you goose bumps when you realize that more than than 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured during the three days of the war. The sun was beating down during our visit on July 14, but it was even hotter during the 1863 battle with the thermometer going up to 39 degrees Celsius in the shade... Looking at the soldiers’ woolen uniforms and the equipment that they carried, it must have been a true ordeal for them to get through those days. What is more, the cannons (each of which required 12 horses to move them and the ammunition around) had a range of 1 or 2 miles, so the fighting had to be done up-close and often ended with the bayonet. However, at the heart of this conflict remained the divergence of views on the founding principles of this country, that all are born equal...but that abolishing slavery and promoting the emancipation of people of color was rejected by 11 southern states, which declared secession.

The museum's cyclorama is impressive. It is a fresco painted by Paul Philippoteaux (the Spielberg of the time, I was told) in 1884 and which has been restored (2004-2008). The painting offers an incredible view of the battle's last offensive, the Pickett's charge, that sealed the outcome of the war. The painting is 350 feet long by over 30 feet high and set up around the room to encircle the viewer. Imax and virtual reality have only to bow down to this innovation of the 1880s!

The 160th anniversary of the Gettysburg Battle was celebrated at the beginning of July this year, and it is moving to walk the battlefield and seeing the various memorials of each northern and southern state, each on its own side. We must not forget that the vast majority of the soldiers involved were volunteers from their respective states who were grouped into regiments. Many of them were untrained soldiers who resented authority (especially on the southern side). In short, it was a battle far removed from so-called "professional" warfare, and it was quite improvised to boot. I am reading Allen C. Guelzo's excellent book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. It must be said that the Confederates, led by their star general, General Robert E. Lee, tried to "invade" the North to create a surprise and undermine the will of Northern forces and public opinion, an incredible gamble that failed in the end.

I leave you with the words of President Abraham Lincoln's mythical address given on November 19, 1863 at Gettysburg in honor of the dedication of the cemetery for fallen soldiers:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Of all the speeches made that day, these 272 words are the ones we remember, perhaps because they continue to ring true and inspire. We will continue to visit the United States on our Nomad Life adventure and keep in mind the turmoil of how it all began to honour where it is today.

We are standing in the town of Gettysburg, in front of the David Mills house where Lincoln spent the night before delivering the Gettysburg Address. The president was 6 feet 4 inches tall!

N.B. Trivia question: only one state sent soldiers to fight on both the Union and Southern sides during the American Civil War, which one? Hint: They eat blue crab!

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