Back in the day, oh, say, the last ten years or so I lived in NYC, I shuffled around to a dozen or so regional theatres on the east coast, a few of them in Virginia, most notably Mill Mountain Theatre, Wayside Theatre and TheatreVirginia in Richmond. I think I did about 15 plays at Mill Mountain, in Roanoke, alone. Some good, some not so good, but it remained my favorite place to work, mostly because of it's location. Roanoke is within visiting distance to a number of Civil War battlefields and on our dark days I could drive to one and spend the day there. Richmond, too. And Wayside was right outside D.C.
It was during this time I first visited both Harper's Ferry and Gettysburg. While Harper's Ferry was fought over several times during the war, it's real importance was John Brown. The town itself is virtually impervious to attack because of the lay of the land around it. But it was here where the war really started in the hearts and minds of the country.
Gettysburg, of course, is a different animal altogether. It is the site of the greatest battle in the history of the western hemisphere. What's more a battle that neither side wanted, at least not there. What started as an accidental skirmish quickly escalated to the Big One, the one that Lee had been pursuing but had no intention of fighting on that ground. The one he was cornered into fighting, expending his last ounce of courage.
His nemesis was George Meade, who had been in charge of the Union Army all of three hours when it broke out. Meade was the sixth in a list of sub par generals Lincoln had appointed to lead the awesome Army of the Potomac. Grant was still down south seiging Vicksburg at the time and hadn't yet captured Lincoln's confidence. In Meade's defense, he fought Gettysburg admirably well, mostly because of the strong leadership of his subordinates. However, he did finally miss a massive opportunity by not following Lee into the mountains after the battle and finishing him off. Grant most certainly would have.
And then there was Robert E. Lee, undefeated for all intents and purposes, coming into the battle. He had continually broken the number one rule of warfare over the past couple of years, which was to never divide your forces. Lee did it repeatedly and successfully. As a tactician he was unstoppable. Head and shoulders above every other field officer in the war, including Grant. And what most people forget about Gettysburg is that upon starting the battle, Lee committed to ending it all...not the battle, but the war. He knew it was his only chance. He knew another battlefield victory wasn't important in the long run, he had to utterly destroy the Army of the Potomac once and for all. Lee was not in it to chalk up another mark in the win column, he was in it to force a final solution. After two long years of war he was finally on the offensive and deep in Union territory. If he could crush Meade at Gettysburg there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to keep him from taking Washington.
I have visited Gettysburg four or five times. It is, in my opinion, truly 'hallowed ground.' One can feel it. I have walked the battlefield from one end to the other, covered every foot of it, carrying my maps and binoculars. And although there were several grand moments of history there, moments when the battle could have swung another way, it essentially came down to two in particular: Little Round Top and Pickett's Charge.
Joshua Chamberlain just may have single-handedly changed the course of history. His ragged and exhausted band of Maine regulars on Little Round Top came within minutes of being overcome and losing it all. But in a maneuver quite literally at the last second, a text book response to being overrun that had nearly no chance to succeed, changed it all. A full-out, hand-to-hand, fixed bayonet charge down a hill through a dense forest into overwhelmingly superior forces. Over the years, he has been lauded for such a surprise charge. The truth of course is that he had no choice: he was out of ammunition. And he knew he was on the farthest left flank of the Union Army. Had he given ground, Robert E. Lee would almost certainly have rolled up the Army of the Potomac and finished the entire thing on the second day of the three day battle. Instead it turned out to be one of the most unexpected and courageous decisions in the history of warfare in the western hemisphere.
The other moment that changed everything was Lee's almost incomprehensible order to charge the center of the Union forces on the final day of battle, led by George Pickett's 12,000 fresh confederate troops. It's easy now to second guess Lee's blundering decision, but at the time, as I said, he was not thinking of winning a battle, he was dreaming of winning the war. As nearly everyone knows now, at least anyone with a rudimentary grasp of history, the charge was the single most disastrous incident in the entire war. In fact, so much so, that it could be reasonably said the entire war was lost that day on that ground. As many as 20,000 casualties in less than an hour. As close to a slaughter as one can imagine. And ordered by, arguably, the finest general this side of the world ever produced. It was beyond folly, it was, in hindsight, Providential.
In any event, I walked that mile or so of open field several times over several visits, spending many hours in that killing field of 1863. It is overwhelming. The carnage that took place in that field is unimaginable.
I am, of course, a huge history buff, the Civil War in particular, and there are two places in this country that have brought me to tears while there. One is the field on which the doomed Confederate Army charged across at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The other is the bed in which Lincoln died in the rickety boarding house across the street from Ford's Theatre (a stage on which, incidentally, I have played several times). The first time I visited that room, I was so shocked to learn that the brown spots on the plastic covered sheets were actually LINCOLN'S BLOOD I had to sit down and catch my breath. Never before had history leaped up at me like that. Up until that moment (I think I was in my early twenties) it had all been an exercise in academia for me. Those splashes of blood all over the bed, brown with age but still unmistakably there, from Abraham Lincoln's gushing head wound in April of 1865, brought history to me, for the first time in my life, tangibly and awkwardly. The truth is, I couldn't quite get my mind around it for a long while.
Later, as I grew older, other places have evoked similar reactions from me; Auschwitz, Wounded Knee, Ground Zero at the World Trade Center, to name a few. But the death field of Gettysburg and the little room across from Ford's Theatre were the first.
I suppose, thinking about it, each of these places have touched me so deeply because they all bring to mind the hereto for unthought of thought 'there but for the grace of God go I.' Up until the moment I stepped onto that field at Gettysburg, the horror of it all was still black and white, a tag-on sentence in a dry history book; 'Led by General George Pickett, the Confederates were beaten back.' Or, 'Lincoln was carried across the street and died the next morning at 7:21 from the wound.'
The books all neglected to mention the fear. They skipped over the pain. And the blood. So very much blood.
See you tomorrow.