Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How many trips?

By my count, my latest excursion to Gettysburg was about my 35th.

I made this trip this past weekend when about 16 of us from the Davidson County Civil War Round Table, starting on different days and in different cars, and some of us from as far away as Wilmington and Blowing Rock, converged on the battlefield on Friday in a manner similar to Robert E. Lee's army 150 years ago.

I've attended 23 Civil War Institutes (the CWI being an annual week-long collection of field trips, lectures and seminars), so that takes care of 23 visits right there. My wife and I once made a winter excursion with another couple. Plus, I was on the field 41 years ago with a friend during a cross-country trip, and at least once before that when I was child.

Throw in a few trips I've made with my wife when we used Gettysburg as a stopover on some of our New England vacations and, well, there you have it — at least 35 visits to Gettysburg.

I should have the battle figured out by now, right?

Looking north from the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Actually, the face, the culture and the scholarship of the battle are in constant change. The battlefield, for example, is undergoing a remarkable facelift in which a decade-long tree-clearing project is bringing the field back to its 1863 appearance. Telephone lines and electric wires are now underground. Fence lines are popping up in their proper historical locations (now it's easier to understand the difficulty of Pickett's Charge when you see how the Confederate troops had to scale a post-and-five-rail fence in front of the Union guns). Buildings that were not on the field then (like the old Cyclorama building and the old visitors' center on Cemetery Ridge) have been razed to the ground, all evidence of their intruding existence swept away, and thus opening new and revealing vistas of what I think is one of America's truly seminal moments.

It's wonderful. It's illuminating.

One of the few things I hadn't done in all those years visiting Gettysburg was to climb the cupola on the Lutheran Theological Seminary. (See here for museum slide show and other information). For the longest time, you simply couldn't get to the cupola unless it was through special invitation. Later, there was a restrictive $150 to $200 fee. Now, in its current manifestation, you can climb the cupola for about $30. Done. No-brainer.

A view of Herbst Woods from the Lutheran Theological Seminary cupola
The cupola is an iconic structure on the field. It was used as an observation platform by Union cavalry general John Buford during the opening phase of the three-day battle. It is said that Lee himself may have climbed the tower for a look-see later in the struggle after Seminary Ridge fell to the Confederates.

So despite the fact that the April weather was unseasonably cold, wet and blustery, our club trooped to the top and was treated to a spectacular view of the first day of the battle. It was, perhaps, as close to a time machine as you can get.

The day wasn't over. Another highlight was a two-hour afternoon tour of the battlefield — and specifically, by request, the Sickles-Meade controversy —by Licensed Battlefield Guide Charlie Fennell.

I've talked about Charlie before. He's an exceptional guide, as guides go, and there was no letdown this time around, either. He peppered us with tidbits of minutiae, humor and cold, hard history. We came away, I think, more than satisfied.

I feel myself slowing down as I get older. The seven-hour trip from Lexington to Gettysburg can be taxing, at times, and I wonder how long I want to keep doing this.

Right now, at least, I'm still up for the next call for a road trip.

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