01 October 2005 by Published in: General musings 1 comment

I am sitting in a hotel room in Gettysburg as I write this. The hotel is right next to the visitor center, meaning that it’s actually on the battlefield proper, although it probably ought not be here. That’s another rant for another night, though.

I spent a fabulous day on the battlefield today. The weather was nothing short of spectacular–not a cloud in the sky, and about 70 degrees. It simply doesn’t get any better. I led one tour today, and have another one to lead tomorrow. I am fond of saying that the even the worst day on the battlefield is significantly better than the best day at the office. It was certainly true today.

At the same time, it’s one of those mixed feelings things.

As I said, I am drawn to this battlefield, time and again. No matter how fascinating I find other battles, I still come back to Gettysburg. I ask myself why. Perhaps it’s because I’m a native Pennsylvanian. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent more time on this field than any other and know it better than any other. Perhaps it’s because it was my first love. Honestly, I’m not sure. I wish I could understand it, but I can’t.

I do know that there’s one thing that I firmly believe. There WERE other battles beside Gettysburg. Some of them were even more important. Others are certainly as fascinating in their own right. What I’ve never been able to understand is why some people are single-minded about Gettysburg. Gettysburg is the ONLY battle that they care about, and it’s the only one that they deem worthy of studying in any fashion. Instead of really understanding where and how Gettysburg fits into the big scheme of things, they would rather micro-manage and micro-study every single thing about Gettysburg to the exclusion of every other battle. They may know ever teeny, tiny bit of trivia about Gettysburg, but they don’t know anything at all about the rest of the war.

A long time ago, I realized that one cannot truly understand Gettysburg without having a thorough understanding of Chancellorsville. There is so much about Chancellorsville that is directly tied to Gettysburg that you can’t truly understand one and not the other. Here are some of the linkages:

1. John F. Reynolds, who was aggressive by nature, never fired a shot in anger at Chancellorsville. Was it any surprise that Reynolds was desperate to pitch into the fray at Gettysburg?

2. Dan Sickles resented the position he was forced to abandon at Hazel Grove, which exposed his Third Corps to galling artillery fire. He swore it would never happen again.

3. O. O. Howard provided no real leadership to the 11th Corps, putting it into an untenable position. Then, he ignored reports of a Confederate movement against his flank. Although elements of his command fought hard, it was in an impossible position, and got routed and was sent flying.

I could go on, but you get the idea. All of these events play into the way these people conducted themselves at Gettysburg. Accordingly, I firmly believe that you can’t really understand Gettysburg without understanding Chancellorsville thoroughly. Some agree with me, but still refuse to learn these lessons. Others simply blow off the idea, content to stay in their own private Idaho. One fellow once said to me that since his time is limited, he’s decided to focus on Gettysburg to the exclusion of all other battles. While I can appreciate that, it’s an awfully narrow view.

The truth is that while I love this place and what it stands for, I would rather go to Antietam, where there’s no crass commercialism and phony ghost tours every ten steps. Or, better still, I would prefer to go to Chancellorsville and examine those events in detail. Or, I would prefer to visit some of the pristine cavalry battlefields that have been long overlooked by history and by most people.

In my mind, I think it’s very sad that people take such a narrow view. As important as this place is to me, there are plenty of places that are just as important, if not more so.

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