As a kid, we visited Civil War battlefields like some folks hunt Pokémon. We stopped at the ones along the way, and the ones that were a bit out of the way.
We did the Shenandoah Valley, all four near Fredericksburg (Federicksburg, The Wildness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and Chancellorsville), Shiloh, Vicksburg, Brice’s Crossroads, Antietam and any others which we ran or planned across.
My Dad subscribed to Civil War Illustrated. Ken Burns “Civil War” series was a hit on PBS.
I ate the stuff up and to this day can name generals on both sides at various battles and engagements and whatnot.
The big kahuna, though, was always Gettysburg - the high water mark of the Confederacy and a huge, sprawling three day engagement across Pennsylvania peach orchards, wheat fields, round top hills, and dens of devils.
I remember going as a kid and doing the tour - I can’t recall if guided or self-directed - and stopping at every monument and plaque and reading every stitch.
I remember it all pretty fondly - in case you couldn’t tell.
Earlier today (note: I wrote this on June 19, 2023), I took my kids to Gettysburg.
And I left feeling differently - or maybe I arrived thinking differently and the experience reinforced it.
There’s a new visitors center now - all shiny and corporate. It feels like there’s more knickknacks in the gift shop (which feels huge compared to other national park service properties). There are tour companies out the wazoo - the helpful ticket lady could get you a private one if you wanted. There’s an efficient two theater system to churn visitors through the Morgan Freeman-voiced film and into the Cyclorama - a 360-degree painting that’s been there for a hundred years or so, now gussied up and in a custom-built theater.
This is all kind of expected from any of the National Parks big hitters. We’re heading to Independence Hall tomorrow and I kind of expect the same.
It doesn’t match the shabbiness and livedinedness of my memory. The Gettysburg battlefield in my head is more DIY, more bespoke, more haunting than it is Haunted Mansion (author note: I adore Haunted Mansion - just not here).
Some of that is probably the old man growing inside my 40+ year old frame. Kids today and all that.
What I’d like to talk about more is how I view things - like the Civil War itself - differently these days.
I grew up in an era and region that mythologized Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson more than a little. Reluctant fighters for their native state alongside their fellow Virginians. We never talked about their slaves or their horrifically racist views. Lee was a kindly gentleman - hell, he had half a college named for him! And Jackson to this day has a state park named after him in my (and his) native state of West Virginia.
And the start of the self-guided car tour at Gettysburg shortly gets into row after after row of monuments to men like these - men fighting against their government not for their states, but for the continued legal ability to own other people as property - and to continue to expand that ability to new territories forevermore.
I didn’t want to look at their monuments. I didn’t want to look at the statues of Lee, or for the boys of North Carolina or Mississippi or Louisiana. And I didn’t want to get photos of my kids next to them either. I don’t want to gaze upon these monuments to their rightfully lost cause of human suffering into perpetuity.