I went to Gettysburg to learn more about why people risk their lives in war, and by the third day I was steeped in Civil War history and able to chat about generals Ñ Sickles, Longstreet, Hancock, Lee Ñ as if they were old friends.
However, it was the survivors who surprised me, especially by the changes they made to the battlefield.
Overall, the terrain was much less dramatic than I expected for a bloody three-day battle where the goal of both sides was to gain the high ground. Maps in my book pointed to essential knolls like Oak Ridge and CulpÕs Hill.
And yet, as my husband and I and two friends drove around the battlefield (we drove because it was miles wide), we found ourselves saying, ÒIs that the high ground?Ó ÒIs that ground higher?Ó Only when we got to the most important promontories, Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge, could we fully grasp the higher ground advantage.
But there was another aspect of the battlefield that was immediately evident, something unexpected that came to dominate my mind more than generals or hills.
Picture this: Every flat field, every rolling hill, every patch of forest has monuments.
They stand at every site where fighting occurred, from a skirmish to a slaughter. Made of stone or metal or both, they range from corner markers no larger than a fire hydrant, to life-sized bronze sculptures of men on horseback, to a couple of state memorials as big as houses.
Some attend at roadside; others scatter the fields like cattle munching grass. Numbering about 1,400, they make it certain, very certain, that Gettysburg will never look like any other town.
Our traveling companions, who live back East, told me they had seen monuments on other battlefields, but never in such quantity.
Many of the monuments describe what the unit in question did. They list how many wounded, how many dead. Some focus on leaders and contain a physical likeness of that man. Others list everyone. The huge Pennsylvania Memorial has everything: sculptures of its generals, a list of soldiers (those who lived and those who died), and a tower you can climb to look at the battlefield.
We pulled over for one sculpture that puzzled me because the soldier had his back to the road. It turns out that there were rules: every sculpted soldier in Gettysburg faces in the direction of battle, looking toward his foe.
One memorable monument includes a bronze image of Sallie, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier who was the mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Sallie was renowned for standing vigil over the wounded and dying in her company even when she had no food.
In general, monuments were erected at key intervals, 25, 50 and 75 years after the battle. In July 1938, the 75th anniversary, Franklin Roosevelt helped dedicate the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. At that time, a couple-thousand soldiers in their 90s were still alive.
Now they are all gone, but in various pockets around the country the Civil War burns on. Some study it, some reenact it, some raise money to maintain the monuments.
Some find new things to rage about, like Pennsylvania English professor Bob Myers who I encountered on the Web while writing this column.
He catalogued monuments as a hobby but wrote in 2008, ÒI am no longer updating my list. I believe that the National Park Service has ruined the battlefield by destroying 500-plus acres of trees so that the imaginatively challenged can picture the battlefield as it was in 1863 (of course, following their logic, the vandals at the NPS should blow up the monuments as well). Gettysburg has been a part of my life since I was a child, but I am no longer interested in going to see the latest desecrations ÉÓ
My husband wanted to see the battlefield precisely because it had been restored.
I, too, appreciated the change. What is known as PickettÕs Charge, the catastrophic confederate assault on Cemetery Ridge on the third day of battle, would be hard to imagine accurately if you saw a forest.
Instead, I looked out on vast open terrain. The mile-wide field was so large that I could barely make out the monuments on the other side. There were no trees to hide behind.
It took astounding bravery, bravery I almost cannot fathom, to march toward an enemy perched on the promontory with canons and guns. The Confederate infantry was 12,500 strong, but in 50 or 60 minutes half were gone: wounded, captured, dead.
It is no surprise that survivors on both sides searched for a way to honor the living and the dead. Many of the monuments were commissioned by relatively small groups of people Ñ 300 men from a regiment, for example. IÕm sure that many a family member went to such a monument and shed tears.
As I stood looking out from Cemetery Ridge, trying to grasp the sweep of battle, I felt the monuments hovering nearby. When I turned, they spoke to me. Every one of them, even the smallest, said Òwe were here,Ó Òsomething important happened hereÓ and Òsomeone who was loved was lost here.Ó
We have all heard of survivors who never talk about their experience of war. Perhaps for some, memorials in bronze and stone are easier than words to family.
I can vouch for the fact that stones speak.
Ñ Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected] Her column appears Sundays.