I'm a lover of history, though not a history buff. There's a difference. I can appreciate and respect the events of the past and love learning about them, but I can't remember the names and dates and who shined Washington's shoes just before the battle of Yorktown.
I've been to a lot of places that have made me think--the USS Arizona Memorial, Yorktown, Jamestown, among others, but few have moved me the way the silent fields of Gettysburg did this last week. You see, there's something special about the Civil War. If I went to Normandy, I might feel a loss over the American lives lost there, and I'd try to feel regret for the German lives lost as well, but it would be hollow. Right or wrong, that's the way I'd feel.
Gettysburg, along with that entire war, is different. It doesn't matter that the southern states no longer considered themselves "Americans." When I sat on the hallowed ground that is shown on the map as "The Wheatfield" or "Little Round Top," I only see the ghosts of Americans, thousands upon thousands of dead men and boys who gave all for something they believed in mightily. At the battle's end, which essentially ended any hopes for a southern victory in the war, there really were no winners. The United States kept what it already had, less some 23,000 men, and Lee hadn't achieved his goal of a stunning victory for the Confederacy, yet had still lost 28,000 men.
General Lee, I've also found during what little research I've done, is a man to be respected by any American. Funny thing for a man stripped of his citizenship and his land (where Arlington National Cemetary now sits). There were other personalities in that battle who will never be common names in a history textbook, but they were all Americans, no matter which side, and many of them died for their cause.
As we drove around the battlefield I studied as many monuments as I could. There are over 1400, but I wanted to take in all of it. Of course, I found the 16th Michigan on Little Round Top, who were almost overrun by a few Texas brigades before a New York regiment came to their rescue. The 20th Maine was a special monument to me and anyone else who'd read "The Killer Angels." Others I'd never read anywhere all meant something. I thought of Robin as I read the inscription on the Arkansas and Louisiana monuments, Ronie as I stood on the ground where thousands of Texans died trying in vain to capture Little Round Top. Their monuments sprout like wildflowers at that end of the battlefield. I smiled at the lanky soldier atop the 1st Minnesota monument, then discovered that over 80% of that regiment was lost in a suicide charge just to gain a few minutes while reinforcements were called up.
I walked out from the Virginia monument, the first southern monument on the battlefield, to the point where Lee rode out to meet his retreating troops and muttering, "It's all my fault." I felt his loss, our loss. Not the loss of the Confederacy, but the loss of a nation's innocence. We'd fought one another in a bloody conflict the likes of which must never, ever be repeated. It is truly the one place in this country where all of us has a connection to a horrible tragedy. I wish all could visit it. If you do, take a moment, close the tour book, turn off the audio tour CD, close out the world, and remember. Shed the tears if they'll come. Pray for our nation. The cost of our liberty has been far too high to take it for granted.