I’ve visited the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., at least five times in my life, and I intend to go back perhaps another five before all is said and done. In fact, I’ve traveled to quite a few Civil War battlefields throughout my formative years, and, though it took me a while to appreciate the finer details of these trips, the events of the last few months have made me more grateful than ever to have been raised by a father who loves U.S. history and by parents who made those visits a priority.
The three days from July 1 to July 3 mark the anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg, widely acknowledged as the turning point of the U.S. Civil War. I usually remember this anniversary rather idly, often because my dad mentions it in passing, and also because I’ve always found it striking that such a brutal battle pitted American brothers against one another in the days leading up to the anniversary on which our nation celebrates its founding.
This year, I’ve found new significance in this anniversary.
For one thing, it is the first time I’ve reflected on the anniversary of Gettysburg since having read The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s famous, partly fictionalized account of the battle. Visiting the battlefield again last summer, just after having finished the book, brought the events to life in a way I had never before experienced, seeing the fields where the men fought after I had read about those events from the perspective of the key players.
Returning to primary sources, to the study of our history and the men who moved it, has been a comforting reminder that we have weathered storms more daunting than those we face today.
It is the first time, too, that I’ve marked this anniversary since having watched Civil War, the justly acclaimed documentary series by Ken Burns, whose engaging, detailed story-telling brought to life not only the events of this three-day battle but also the rest of the war.
Another way of putting it, perhaps, is that I’m thinking of Gettysburg this year for the first time since having begun to take ownership of my interest in history, delving into the details of what transpired some 150 odd years ago not because I’ve been brought to a battlefield on a hot Saturday but because I feel that this history belongs to me, and that I ought to understand it and care about it because I owe something to my country.
That slow process of digging into history has taken many forms of late, especially given the extra free time I’ve had during this global pandemic. After watching Civil War, I turned to the Federalist Papers, refreshing my memory of what I studied with too little focus in college. I’ve read and reread speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, compiling a list of things I long to know about what they believed and what they wrote. I’ve even begun working my way through Ron Chernow’s massive, compelling biography of Ulysses S. Grant; my favorite fact I’ve learned so far is that, to my great surprise, his middle name didn’t begin with an “S” at all.
Though I’ve always had a mind for history, perhaps owing in part to my long-time fascination with American politics, I don’t think this recent renewal of my interest in studying it could’ve come at a better moment. Owing in large part to the COVID-19 outbreak, we have witnessed ferocious social unrest unlike anything I can remember having experienced in my life. As far too many of my fellow citizens have busily engrossed themselves in ripping down statues of anyone who said or did anything they now find mildly offensive looking back with their modern eyes, my dabbling in U.S. history has brought great consolation.
I’ve always found it striking that such a brutal battle pitted American brothers against one another in the days leading up to the anniversary on which our nation celebrates its founding.
Returning to primary sources, to the study of our history and the men who moved it, has been a comforting reminder that we have weathered storms more daunting than those we face today. More important, thinking back to Gettysburg and the memorialized words Lincoln uttered there has reminded me that the principles and heroic deeds on which this nation was founded are worth studying, commemorating, and defending.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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