29 September 2005 by Published in: General musings 1 comment

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

So said Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain years after the end of the Civil War. This passage, which has, unfortunately, become somewhat cliched over the years, still gives me chills when I read it. Although Chamberlain said these words on the battlefield at Gettysburg, they could just as easily apply to any battlefield of the Civil War. However, they are most closely associated with Gettysburg, and they mean the most to me when I think about Gettysburg. They certainly are true. There is no doubt that the shadow of a mighty presence has wrapped me in its bosom and that the power of its vision has passed into my soul. Perhaps that’s why I get chills when I read these words. I don’t know. I do know this–I have read few writers with a greater gift for the English language than Chamberlain had. I wish I could write like that.

I find myself drawn to Gettysburg just as Chamberlain did. Several times per year, I have to visit there in order to keep grounded and feel like I’ve gotten my fix. I find that I need to spend time on that ground several times per year, even though I have walked almost every inch of that battlefield at some point or another. I’ve walked some pieces of it dozens of times, but for some reason, I never get enough of it. For me, it’s the obscure places that draw me most. There are few spots on that battlefield that move me more, or where I love to just sit and contemplate the meaning of life more than the spot on the front slope of Big Round Top where Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth met his fate on July 3, 1863. Or Barlow’s Knoll, where an unnecessary disaster befell the Eleventh Corps on the first day of the battle. Or the spot where the 1st Minnesota made its magnificent charge into Lang’s Floridians on the second day. Or the spot where the Michigan Cavalry Brigade monument stands–East Cavalry Field is a quiet and contemplative spot where I rarely have to share the ground with anyone else. Or the spot on Stratton Street where the brave men of Coster’s brigade got chopped to bits during the fight for the Brickyard on July 1. Or the forlorn monument to the 5th U. S. Cavalry, overgrown, neglected, and almost never visited. Or the first shot marker, where this great conflagration began. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Unless I go to Gettysburg several times per year and spend time on these bits of hallowed ground, I don’t feel complete, and I don’t feel as though I’m fully grounded. I’ve often wondered why that is.

I’ve never been able to come up with a good explanation, other than it just got into my heart and soul, and has remained there, continuing to draw me again and again. There’s one way to try to explain it. My all-time Jimmy Buffett song is titled “A Pirate Looks at Forty.” Jimmy himself is fond of saying that he hopes that the song helps to ease people’s pain. The first three stanzas go:

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all

Watched the men who rode you switch from sails to steam
And in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen
Most of ’em dream, most of ’em dream

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothin’ to plunder
I’m an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late

I often think that this song describes me, that I was actually meant to be a Civil War cavalryman. I’m certainly over forty, and the cannons–at least the three inch ordnance rifles, anyway–don’t thunder. There’s not much left to plunder (legally, anyway), and I’m clearly a victim of fate. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I’m drawn to Gettysburg. I still hear the guns every time I go there, and I see myself with saber drawn, mounted on a trusty steed, charging for my foeman for a clash of steel, hand to hand…..

She’s a jealous mistress, too. No matter how hard I might try to break away, or to become fascinated by something else, I am drawn back to her time and time again. I’ve heard her call one more time. I’m headed there tomorrow for the weekend. Hopefully, I will be better grounded again when I get back.

More when I get back…..

Scridb filter


  1. Sam Beeghley
    Sat 17th Sep 2016 at 5:59 pm

    Eric, this is one if the finest pieces that I have ever read on what Gettysburg matters to someone. I have tried myself to put into words but I am no where close to what you were able to do. I first visited in 1972 as a young boy, I will never forget the distinguished guide at the high water mark taking about the soldiers from both sides. I remember the peach trees being in bloom. That first visit started me on a life time journey or trying to learn and trying to understand what happened there so long ago. My thanks to you for this blog.

Comments are closed.

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress