Prompted by my cousin’s visit, I took a day trip to Gettysburg Battlefield (technically, Gettysburg National Military Park) for the first time. It’s only about a ninety minute drive from where I live, but not being much of a Civil War buff, it’s never held much interest for me. Obviously, I respect the significance of what occurred there, but I had never felt the urge to visit. I’m so glad my cousin wanted to go, though, because it turned out to be a very moving and insightful experience.
While my cousin knew his Civil War history inside and out, and was lost in his own world replaying the battles in each section of the (pretty large) park, I found myself time and again trying to comprehend how so much carnage and tragedy took place amidst so much natural beauty. We went on a mid-September morning, when the foliage was lush and green, and the atmosphere quiet and peaceful. Touring the locations of each battle, we drove through neighborhoods and a small school campus, making it easy to imagine how people were just going about their lives when the war approached their back yard.
During my day in Gettysburg, I kept thinking of the time I went to the Killing Fields in Cambodia. The landscape there was beautiful as well, and it was impossible to comprehend that mass numbers of people were killed on the very ground I was strolling. I realized then that perhaps we are promoting historic locations like Gettysburg in an incomplete context. The museum at the entrance of the park described the battles in great detail, and discussed the military strategies and key military figures involved. I appreciate the reality check of what it takes to win a war (including plain old luck in some cases). But I hope from an educational perspective we can go beyond what I learned in school – which emphasized a great battle and great speech – and include a discussion on the boundaries of humanity.