Sunday, October 31, 2021

Road Trip: One Amazing Thing

I started writing a post titled “Human beings do amazing things,” and I was telling you all about the amazing things encountered on this trip: art, museum exhibits, architecture, theater, food. But there was just too much. It got boring: This great thing, that great thing, oh and another great thing.

So I’m just going to tell you about one thing. Who knew that the Gettysburg Museum & Visitor Center would float to the top of my list?

I had my qualms about the whole stop in Gettysburg, thinking it might be a chronicle of this general and that battle and those maneuvers. I’m tired of the militarization of American history; our chapters go from war to war: Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, World War I, etc etc. What if instead our chapters went from invention to invention or economy to economy, peace to peace? What would things look like if most of our monuments were all about peacekeepers, good Samaritans, educators, farmers?

There were 51,000 casualties in three days at Gettysburg. This is no victory celebration site; this is a cemetery. By the end, the Civil War killed more Americans than any other war: 620,000 people.

Gettysburg is a museum of War – of the toll it takes

of the people who die

of the people who have to bury them

of the equipment they have to carry

of the equipment they don’t have

of the heat

of their heavy uniforms

of the photographers and journalists who witness their deaths

of the weight of decisions to make and mistakes that are made

of canteens collected and water not found
of regret and despair

of the whims of chance and who had the higher ground and who they couldn’t see in the dark

of medics and disease and amputations

of the women left behind and the families splintered.

of freedom fought for and yet freedom undelivered.

It’s all arranged chronologically, by the three days of the battle. We walk those three days. It’s a brilliantly designed museum. We feel those three days.

Sometimes you learn things by slowly absorbing them, bit by bit. And then, every now and then, you get a direct infusion to the brain. The Gettysburg Museum is a 2 x 4 to the head and heart: War is hell; freedom is worth fighting for; equality is not done.

At the end of the museum, there’s a continuously-running film that ends with the 50-year reunion at Gettysburg. President Wilson invited white veterans of both sides, and a famous handshake between white Union and Confederate soldiers took place. Black soldiers were relegated to setting up tents and cleaning latrines.

All those dead people, and this is where we are.

I read further and the story of the racism of the 1913 centennial is even worse. In 1963, at the 100th anniversary, President Johnson gave his Gettysburg address:

“The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him — we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil — when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’”

That was in 1963, but still equality is not done.

The next day, we did the outdoor tour of Gettysburg. You can hire a guide or you can follow along in your car and listen to Ranger Gwinn describe the sites on your smart phone.

Little light interlude because this is all so heavy:

I was very happy because Ranger Gwinn does a wonderful job at each site, but mostly: I got make-your-own waffles for breakfast! All through this trip, the hotel breakfasts have been reduced to grab-and-go breakfasts because of Covid. I love make-your-own waffles, but I have only been able to stare longingly at the dormant waffle makers. Not in Gettysburg! Waffles for breakfast!

We went on to Washington, D.C, where white flags at the Washington Monument memorialize American Covid deaths – 700,327 when we were there. As far as the eye could see. We’d passed the Civil War milestone.

No, Gettysburg was not a depressing element of our trip, but it was thoughtful, sobering, and unforgettable.


  1. Thank you for reminding us what can happen when divisiveness and polarization are unchecked.


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