Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Plugging the Gettysburg Address into my GPS

By the bivouac's fitful flame,
A procession winding around me,
Solemn and sweet and slow;—but first I note,
The tents of the sleeping army,
The fields' and woods'dim outline,
The darkness, lit spots of kindled fire—the silence;
Like a phantom far or near an occasional figure moving;
The shrubs and trees,
(As I left my eyes they seem to be stealthily watching me;)
While wind in procession thoughts,
O tender and wond'rous thoughts,
Of life and death—of home and the past and loved,
and of those that are far away;
A solemn and slow procession there as I sit on the ground,
By the bivouac's fitful flame.
~ Walt Whitman
I just counted the number of miles I drove between July 30 and August 30 of 2012 (not including two deliveries of meals on wheels and the times I took a wrong turn): 4,700 miles. That is the equivalent of driving over 150 miles a day! Whenever we travel, we always try to find interesting places to visit. Our recent trip to Pennsylvania, we drove through Gettysburg, so we had to stop there on the way home. As is typical in a Charlotte Mason paradigm, we had just finished reading about Gettysburg and Lincoln's address the week before we headed into "Yankee land" as our parakeet sitter called it. Our stop in Gettysburg ties into a visit to Vicksburg, Mississippi five years ago and Fort Sumter (a place we will revisit when the weather is more humane) four years ago.

Who can resist a headshot with Honest Abe?

But, I digress.

As we walked up to the museum, we were greeted by a chipmunk! Can you see it sitting on the rocks in the picture below?

We are in the middle of several books and things to heighten Pamela's understanding of the Civil War. Our poet Walt Whitman helps set the mood of many battles. Last month, we listened to a slower-tempo version (thank you, Audacity) of the Pa's Fiddle version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, which was published in 1863 (we used lyrics from The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook). We have nearly finished a book with six stories about slavery and the Reconstruction era, and you can see Pamela trying on chains in the picture on the left. This visit is perfectly timed with what we have been studying for two years.

We are reading the closing chapters of for South Carolina history, Yankee Girl at Fort Sumter, and we bought its companion at the museum in Gettysburg (Yankee Girl at Gettysburg). Here are two pictures I took to tie into the Civil War and South Carolina. The flag is especially meaningful because the heroine of the book got kicked out of school for refusing to salute the Palmetto flag.

A couple of things struck me about the visit. The cyclorama astounded us. What is a cyclorama, you ask? In the late 19th century, this popular entertainment venue featured ginormous oil paintings, created in the round. Imagine standing inside an empty circular swimming pool with the walls depicting a famous historical scene. Most cycloramas portrayed dramatic religious, historical, and literary events. The advent of motion pictures caused interest to wane, and most cycloramas were lost or destroyed.

The Gettysburg cyclorama survived. French artist Paul Philippoteaux depicted the final Confederte assault on July 3, 1863. He came to the city in 1882 and spent the next year exploring the area, sketching, hiring a panoramic photographer, and interviewing veterans of the battle. The painting debuted in Chicago in 1883, made even more realistic with a three-dimensional foreground of dirt littered with battlefield debris, stone walls, shattered trees, and broken fences. Bringing it into the 21st century, the National Park Service has added sound effects, smoke, flashing lights, and a recorded narrative to the experience. The skyline above the painting allows the lighting to change as the day begins and progresses.

Pamela and I followed fellow visitors from all over the world into a theater that played a twenty-minute film narrated by Morgan Freeman. The guides herded us through winding passages and up ramps and stairs to a platform inside the cyclorama. The lights dimmed, and we watched a gorgeous sunset in the east. Then, confusion erupted. Unlike soldiers and citizens trapped in the battle, we heard a narrative, explaining how the skirmishes unfolded. This experience was so impressive, that I plan to stop in Atlanta's cyclorama on our next trip to Kansas.

The biggest idea I learned during our visit is how the battle was set in the middle of the town of Gettysburg. Battles were fought in the middle of farmland, where there were fences, barns, and homes. Since many roads converge and meet in the city of Gettysburg, the location of this battle makes sense. The town provides cover in its natural ridges and hills. The names of various skirmishes reveal how interwoven the battle was into the town: the peach orchard, wheatfield, cemetery hill (a graveyard), seminary ridge (a Lutheran seminary was located there), etc. The fact struck me when we first drove into the park and noticed homes within the boundaries of the park, which this map illustrates well.

After the two armies moved on, two thousand citizens crawled out of cellars and hurried back from nearby towns. Their community was wrecked: damaged property, looted homes, destroyed crops, and stolen food. Even worse, they found tens of thousands suffering in homes, barns, and public building. Dead bodies littered the ground. Animals feasted on some dug up from shallow graves. The stench sickened everyone.

The people of Gettysburg quickly realized they were standing on holy ground, consecrated with soldier's blood. A month after the battle, attorney David McConaughy's purchased the heights of Cemetery Hill for reinterring the battlefield casualties. They dedicated Soldiers' National Cemetery in November 1863, which is when Lincoln delivered his famous lines, "Four score and seven years ago...."

At the museum bookstore, Pamela picked up two books and I paid for a truly living book on the Civil War recommended to me by one of my study group friends: The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote. I have already found myself delaying housework, laundry, and blogging reading the opening chapter narrating the life of Jefferson Davis and that of Abraham Lincoln. The author's take on literature and history are spot on to what Mason educators believe,
The point I would make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: the truth — not a different truth: the same truth — only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, preserved by documents and evaluated by scholarship, or in the imagination, preserved by memory and distilled by the creative process, they both want to tell us how it was: to re-create it, by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around them.
Pamela made her Book of Centuries entry and I love how she shows a ball flying out of the cannon.

Pamela made her Book of Centuries entry, and I love how she shows a ball flying out of the cannon.

Even though some of my Facebook friends believe Pamela was consoling Lincoln, I think she was exploring how bronze hair feels.

1 comment:

Skies of Blue and Gray said...

I came across your blog while searching for Civil War info, and I really liked your Gettysburg post. I was home-schooled and it was great! I'm certain that it instilled in me a lifelong love of history. Gettysburg is my absolute favorite place I've ever visited. As for the picture of your daughter touching Lincoln's hair: who hasn't gone to the visitor center and done that? :-)