Everything about this town whispers to visitors, “Here lies the soul of America's story.”
It is found in the peach orchards and rolling wheat fields where gunfire, explosions and wails of the dying have been replaced by stone sentinels of Confederate and Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War's largest, deadliest battle.
And it is found in the center of town, too, a small village at the time of the battle that has survived, stumbled and ultimately thrived on pure Americana tradition and the remembrance of the dead — part kitsch, part preservation, and lots of heart.
Come July, historians, tourists, politicians and re-enactors will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle that began with a shot fired at Confederate troops as they crossed Marsh Creek, two miles west of town on present-day U.S. Route 30. Lt. Marcellus Jones, of the Union's 8th Illinois Cavalry Regiment, was the man who pulled the trigger on the morning of July 1, 1863.
Americans are tethered to Gettysburg by an ancestor who fought on the battlefield, a hometown regiment that fought here, or a historical appreciation for a place that reshaped the war and, ultimately, everyone in this country, according to Michael Krauss, curator at Pittsburgh's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum.
They visit from across the country. In every season of the year, license plates from Alaska, South Dakota and New Mexico mingle with those from nearby Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Folks walk along Baltimore Street in full regimental regalia — seven modern-day Confederates silently nodding to three men in Union blue passing on the brick sidewalk.
A parade of families, couples and loners moves in and out of mom-and-pop stores, buying Lincoln hats, rebel flags or triple-scoop ice cream cones, before stopping to read the historical marker outside a building where resident Jennie Wade lost her life during the three-day battle.
In the evenings, lantern-carrying ghost-tour guides lead seemingly endless processions of spirit-hunters and thrill-seekers — a relatively recent phenomenon that has produced more commerce for some business owners than it has sightings of the dead.
In this overly articulated and exceedingly archived world of trivial moments captured on social-media websites, Gettysburg's history and kitsch remain cherished here. They always have been, even before the battle's cannon barrels had cooled.
“Because it was the first and only major battle fought above the Mason-Dixon Line, it was immediately preserved by the curious in the North, who had no access to the South where all of the other battles were fought,” explained Krauss, one of the leading authorities on Civil War military history.
“Along with that preservation came our entrepreneurial spirit. Maps of the battles, spent bullets and clothing, any relic at all, was being sold immediately.”
Krauss believes it is the struggle that appeals to everyone's emotions: “Every casualty is an American.”
“Gettysburg has always fascinated me,” said Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and author of a historical novel about the battle. “It is the high-water mark of Southern hopes and the emotional turning point of Union courage.”
The courage and blood of those who died here truly made Gettysburg hallowed ground for freedom, Gingrich said.
On July 1, 1913, Confederate veteran A.C. Smith of the 56th Virginia walked along Cemetery Ridge where he was shot — and, by his own admission, “would have died” — and came face-to-face with Union veteran Albert Hamilton of the 72nd Pennsylvania, the man who saved Smith's life.
“By God ... let me look at you,” said the old Confederate, grasping Hamilton's shoulders.
Both men were attending the first reunion of the Blue and Gray, 50 years after the fighting.
While other fields of Civil War battle have become Wal-Marts and shopping centers, Gettysburg stands as she was. It was the turning point of that terrible war, and it is where Abraham Lincoln gave his speech that defined us as a people.
As our country becomes more diluted by societal and cultural influences, Gettysburg holds onto its value. It remains embedded in our national memory. Perhaps that is so because it is much easier to understand the whole war in one word — Gettysburg.
More likely it is because, like America itself, this is a place worthy of being preserved.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Voters poised to hit brakes on Obama, Dems
- Lament of the fed-up voter
- Divorced from Washington, determined to reform it
- GOP leadership rooted in Badger State