Next week, I will spend five days and four nights at Gettysburg. Over the past few years, I have been there more than two dozen times. Every time I visit, I bring people with me—family, friends, coworkers, Temple students—giving them tours that last the entire day.
I often have to explain my obsession, literally answering the question, “Why are you so obsessed?” Frankly, I am tame compared to some of the friends I have made recently. Yet, what is so special about Gettysburg? How can I find enjoyment traveling two-plus hours from Philadelphia to visit the same fields, ridges, and hills repeatedly?
At times, I feel I have an answer. For example, I find immense pleasure in learning and sharing history, especially warfare. Even more, I enjoy unfolding the story of battles chronologically for people, placing them in the spots where soldiers and commanders stood before they made decisions. I love to hear the reactions to men such as Sickles and heroes such as Reynolds or Buford.
Other times, I feel that accessibility comes into play. If I were in Maryland, my obsession would likely be Antietam. If I lived in Belgium, I would be taking dozens of trips to places such as Waterloo, Agincourt, or Crécy, to do the same routine. Or if I were in Scotland, my friends would get a heavy a dose of Stirling Bridge, Falkirk, and Bannockburn.
Then there is the fact that every time I go, I learn something new. Using modern maps, narratives, and contemporary accounts, I discover that what was the largest battle in this hemisphere is too big for me to fully grasp and appreciate, even after years of “obsessing.”
Yet, there is even more to Gettysburg. The tactics and maneuvers aside, the lead up to the battle is just as fascinating as the aftermath—the two armies moving north, unclear of each other’s exact positions and strengths, then one army fleeing for its survival, fighting the whole way through the rain just to get across the Potomac. Gettysburg remains a ruined town with thousands of poorly buried bodies throughout.
Then there are the effects on Pennsylvania, as those capable of leaving fled from Lee’s path, crossing the Susquehanna and packing Harrisburg with rich farmers and free blacks, escaping the approaching Army of Northern Virginia. Preceding all this was the governor issuing proclamations, calling on Pennsylvanians to defend their state. The amount of cattle, horses, pigs, and other loot that left with the Confederates is overwhelming, as you realize that Lee’s invasion of the North upset the region in ways that would take years to recover.
Why do I keep going back to Gettysburg? Because the campaign, the battle, and their effects on Pennsylvania are some of the most fascinating bits of history I have encountered.
If any of this sounds interesting to you, let me know, and I will take you there too.