The day started with incomprehensible chatter, noises that filtered out as I gazed through the bus window and watched my temporary home shrink in the distance. It would take another hour until we pulled onto the hallowed ground and all I could do was think.
I remembered our previous trip, the Bloody Lane at Antietam, the thought of the fallen that sucked the air from my lungs and left me frozen at the steps as I tried to comprehend the sheer loss of life that appeared on the dirt beneath my feet. If that experience had me reaching desperately for reason, trying to rationalize how so many young men could lose their lives so quickly, how would stepping onto the land of the bloodiest battle in American history feel? There would be no answer for another eternity and it terrified me to the core, intermingling with a sense of curiosity and excitement that made for an explosive cocktail of nerves and determination.
As soon as I took the step off the bus, the air shifted. With bated breath, I walked upstairs to the Gettysburg cyclorama and I stood in awe as I was literally enveloped in history. Then the explosions began. Lights flashed and cannons sounded in the distance. Commanders frantically shouted orders as the museum walls faded away and dissolved into a civil war. Soon, everyone was enveloped in a warm light as the sounds of victory echoed across the room. The experience was entirely unique, resonating with a power indicative of how truly exceptional it was to have the privilege of being there.
Then came the tour of the battlefield.
Following in the footsteps of the 20th Maine and 69th Pennsylvania, my mind was bombarded of imagery of stampeding battalions, of foot soldiers scrambling to reload cannons and tend to their fallen friends. For a few agonizing moments, I wasn’t a senior on a summer trip, I was a young soldier holding a rifle in trembling hands as if it were a lifeline. I was a sergeant desperately trying to save my youngest recruits from the line of fire. The very essence of war encroached upon my senses and 2019 felt like a distant mirage. There was a tangible energy that I could almost feel on my fingertips, the ravages of the conflicts seemingly having seeped into the grass and soil. The earth was bloodstained in a way no time and toil could erase, the lives and memories of these young soldiers clinging to the land where they spent their final moments.
While the infantry and cavalry were long gone, time couldn’t erase the mark of the sons and brothers that left a scar with every last breath.
Yet, people focus on the statistics; gawking at how many died, who won each battle or the number of soldiers on each side. Through this we forget the integral figures who fought and fell, those who didn’t make it long enough to have their names in the history books. We forget that behind every tally mark, there was an erased existence filled with individual experiences and mistakes. With every nameless soldier, there was a family who had to grieve the loss of a loved one. As a society, we fail to have empathy for those who came long before us, that sacrificed everything to fight for the ideals of a better nation.
By preserving places like Gettysburg and telling their forgotten stories, we keep history alive so that we can always remember one thing: history is a narrative, and every sentence is needed to make it whole.