Gettysburg

I am turning off Interstate 76 onto two-lane highways that cut across the countryside of Adams County, Pennsylvania. It’s remote out here. Think wheat fields and ramshackle barns. I’m visiting Gettysburg National Cemetery today, but it feels like I’m traveling toward the earth’s edge.

I am accompanied by loud thundering noises.

A convoy of deafening Harleys, classics, scramblers, and Softails rush past my vehicle. The pack leader looks like Dennis Hopper gone to seed. He gives me a two-fingered salute then tests the limits of the known sound barrier.

It was bike week here in Gettysburg. Swarms of motorcycles gathered in this nationally important borough to honor our history by having daily poker runs, tattoo contests, bike shows, chrome parades, burn outs, and of course, bikini contests.

One local merchant says, “The bikers are real polite and all, but I wish them ladies would put on more clothes. Some gals are way too old to be ‘advertising the goods,’ if you know what I mean.”

I enter the park, drive around for several minutes, and finally find a parking spot between two custom choppers that cost more than my house.

At first glance, Gettysburg National Military Park feels like any other national park. Lots of kids in oversized sunglasses. Middle-aged people in white sneakers. Young parents pushing strollers, food stains on their crumpled clothes, wearing looks of metaphysical exhaustion. And of course, bikers.

But in many ways this park is unlike any other. Not only is this the resting place of 6,000 veterans from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam, this is a battleground where more than 150,000 soldiers clashed during the War Between the States. Where 10,000 were killed and mortally wounded.

When they transformed this place into a cemetery, Abraham Lincoln attended its dedication and gave a little speech you probably heard about.

The Lincoln Address Memorial stands front and center in the cemetery. A bronze bust of Lincoln stares at his visitors. The embossed text of his 272-word speech is engraved on plaques.

There is a little girl inspecting this monument. She uses her hand to trace the bronzed letters of the speech while her mother reads the words aloud. I listen to the mother recite them using her best mom voice:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent…”

My fourth-grade class memorized this speech verbatim. My fourth-grade teacher said it was important, and she always cried when we recited it. I wonder if schoolkids still memorize these words. I hope they do.

The little girl at the monument is reverent. She wears thick eyeglasses and touches Lincoln’s words like they’re church relics.

“…A new nation, conceived in Liberty…”

Lincoln’s words took two minutes to deliver, but they were painful words. Literally. He delivered this speech while feeling “weak and dizzy,” and “his face had a ghastly colour.” At the time he had a bad fever and a “scarlet rash.” It turned out he had smallpox.

He should have been in bed. But he was here. Paying his respects.

Right now I’m standing where he stood that day. Or maybe I’m standing where the tuba player was positioned, playing “Hail to the Chief.” I’m only speculating.

What I know for certain is that I’m on sacred soil where men died by bullet, ball, and bayonet. I tread upon thousands of unmarked tombs. And I’m trying to visualize these young soldiers.

Maybe one such soldier was seventeen. Frightened. A new recruit. Maybe his name was Jeremiah, or Charles, or Danny. Maybe at night he would lie within his oilcloth pup tent, lulling himself to sleep by dreaming about his sweetheart.

Maybe he was a farmer. A Methodist. A baseball man. A fisherman. Maybe he had a big family who lit candles for him and prayed for his return.

Perhaps when he was out here marching, he did not see what the politicians saw. Maybe he didn’t see opposing uniforms, but the faces of his brothers, uncles, cousins, and countrymen.

Maybe the young man walked into combat uttering the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe when he died the last words on his lips were the names of his loved ones, not his enemies.

I stand here imagining that unknown boy soldier. Freckle-faced and scared. All 150,000 of them. And I hear the voice of the mom reading:

“…From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…”

The mother pauses to allow her daughter to touch the engraved lettering. Then, both mom and daughter recite the remaining lines in unison.

“…That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

They smile when they hear my voice join in. So do the two leather-clad bikers standing nearby.

I hope my fourth-grade teacher could see us from where she is now.

54 comments

  1. Susan Parker - July 15, 2021 6:58 am

    Well spoken, Sean! We need reminders like this, desperately. Thank you, sir.

    Reply
  2. Leigh Amiot - July 15, 2021 9:39 am

    Every American needs to read this.

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  3. Ed (Bear) - July 15, 2021 9:44 am

    Mrs. Fowler was my fourth grade teacher. The good teachers we get blessed with are cherished in our memories.

    Reply
  4. Te Burt - July 15, 2021 9:50 am

    Dang it, it’s not even 6 am, and you got me bawlin’! Thanks. We can all do with a reminder of what we’re fighting to keep.

    Reply
  5. Celia - July 15, 2021 9:56 am

    As soon as I read “Gettysburg”, I started crying. Such a powerful place. And wonderful words you used to describe it.

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  6. Harriet - July 15, 2021 10:33 am

    Beautiful writing Sean.

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  7. Bette - July 15, 2021 10:59 am

    God bless you Sean, and thank you for reminding us every day of how much we have to be thankful for. You always bring to mind my Grandma when she would shake her finger at us and say “count your blessings and stop being ugly!”.

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  8. Bar - July 15, 2021 11:29 am

    I felt like I was there. Touching. Beautiful. Memorable.

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  9. Vanessa - July 15, 2021 11:38 am

    Wow! Incredible piece of work! Thank you!

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  10. Becky Kaufman - July 15, 2021 11:44 am

    On the way to Washington, DC with my parents and little sisters when I was about 15. My father drove the long way around to visit the Gettysburg park. The day I became a Pacifist. I made it about half way though the park before I dissolved into floods of tears and I clearly remember thinking, what a waste of life. I went back to the car and sat by myself for hours (or so it seemed) until the rest of my family came back to the car. I wept just reading about the mom reading the Gettysburg Address to her little girl.

    Reply
  11. Don Hines - July 15, 2021 12:01 pm

    It still gives me chill bumps to think of Gettysburg, standing on Little Round Top thinking about those young men who fought and died there. It is a place for silent reflection, not the noise of hundreds of Harleys.

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  12. Bob Howard - July 15, 2021 12:15 pm

    Good Morning Sean. Gettysburg is but one such sacred place that sets aside the land where American’s fought for “what they believed in.” Not what the politicians told them to do but rather for apposing views and a rebellion against federal opposition. The South “succeeded” from the Union. This act itself was provided for in the Constitution of the United States. States rights and yes “slavery” divided the nation. And then, Lincoln and the north, invaded the south. Americans need to read history and both the memoirs and biographies of the great leaders on both sides. American’s need to learn to once again think for themselves and not accept everything they are told by the media.

    We now find ourselves divided once again, this time it is again a “slavery” issue. The left has “once again” decided that they will “force” their ideas on everything from getting a vaccination to ordering us how to feel and speak about social issues once considered immoral abominations in the churches and institutions of America. And, those of us now at least 4-generations or more from having anything to do with slavery are expected to embrace “white privilege” and pay some sort of reparation! America, is no longer America! The unborn and even the just born and destroyed and discarded as trash in numbers that are not “even” conceivable. Reminds me of a concentration camp I once visited while serving in Germany.

    Not too far away there is another city, this time in Virginia, that houses what I consider to also be sacred grounds of American history, heritage and honor. Lexington is the home to VMI and Washington and Lee University. VMI holds significant importance in American history educating and molding some of America’s greatest military officers and other leaders. In addition to the home of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, both he and General Robert E. Lee and buried locally and monuments of honor have existed for over 150-years. There is now a movement, being permitted to exist and grow and succeed in removing most if not all historical reference to the existence of the Confederacy. I am horrified, saddened and sickened at what I see. The wholesale destruction of an undeniable part of what for better or worse, good or bad, shaped our once great nation into what it later became. Again, it is no more.

    So, I appreciate your words and reference to Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” It was to many his greatest and certainly his shortest speech. As one who is proven to be and communicate so well, the Southern prospective on life, you failed to incorporate what places and/or events like the Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, or Pickets Charge mean. The liberals will never succeed in erasing these places or the souls of those men, young and old who fought desperately for what they believed. They were indeed, all, men or honor.

    Lastly, taken from one of your recent writings, I do not think that the last words of those who died in this special place carried the names of brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers or friends. The last words on the lips of these men was “Momma!”

    Reply
    • cajuntiger74 - July 15, 2021 12:23 pm

      Great comments.

      Reply
    • Tom - July 15, 2021 12:32 pm

      Bob Howard- Well written.

      Reply
    • Bill - July 15, 2021 7:58 pm

      You can erase the physical, but you can’t erase what is in man’s hearts. You can, however, change them by rising up above them. History needs to stand so we may learn from it, to not do it again, if it is deemed wrong. Unfortunately, emotions seem to get in the way.

      Reply
  13. cajuntiger74 - July 15, 2021 12:21 pm

    Well done. A fine tribute to Honest Abe.

    Reply
  14. Cheryl W. - July 15, 2021 12:39 pm

    My mama will be 100 this year. She knows us for a few moments at a time, but can still recite the Gettysburg Address and the words to several hymns.

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  15. Jan - July 15, 2021 12:42 pm

    Battlefields have a very unique impact on many people, myself included. I have had the privilege of visiting many battlefields both home and abroad … Gettysburg, Culloden Moor, Normandy, Vicksburg, and others. They each have a unique yet similar impact on me. It truly does seem like hallowed ground because it was the place where so many breathed their last breath and shed blood. Each battlefield brings me to tears both when visiting them in person and when I recall them from the serenity of my own home. Thank you for this fitting tribute to Gettysburg and those who fought and died there no matter which uniform they wore.

    Reply
  16. Debby - July 15, 2021 12:49 pm

    I was i. Gettysburg in June. It was very humbling.

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  17. Patricia Gibson - July 15, 2021 12:58 pm

    Brought tears to my eyes!

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  18. Paul McCutchen - July 15, 2021 12:59 pm

    As always you start my day off right. I am assuming your wife is on the traveling trail.

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  19. deem57 - July 15, 2021 1:00 pm

    Beautiful!

    Reply
  20. Suellen - July 15, 2021 1:03 pm

    This goes along with yesterday’s wise words. Let us all remember that we are One Nation Under God. We have our differences and things can get ugly at times but we are all Americans. We don’t tear down our past. We keep this memory alive lest it ever happen again.

    Reply
  21. Rhonda - July 15, 2021 1:11 pm

    Sean. You HAVE TO GO TO VALLEY FORGE

    Reply
  22. Peyton Lingle - July 15, 2021 1:13 pm

    Here is another story about Gettysburg worth repeating: Gettysburg at 50: The Great Reunion of 1913
    BY SCOTT ALLEN JULY 3, 2013

    From June 29 to July 6, 1913, the Union and Confederate flags flew side by side when more than 50,000 Civil War veterans convened in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of one of the most pivotal battles in American history. Here’s a closer look at the Great Reunion of 1913.
    The Idea
    In April 1908, General H. S. Huidekoper, a Philadelphia native who lost his right arm at Gettysburg in 1863, suggested a fitting semicentennial observance of the three-day battle to Pennsylvania Governor Edwin S. Stuart.
    Stuart, who presented the idea to the state’s General Assembly in January 1909 and established the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg Commission later that year, envisioned a reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers that would be talked about for years to come. “Other States, both north and south, whose sons fought at Gettysburg, will surely co-operate in making the occasion one that will stand foremost in the martial history of the world,” he said.
    Several reunions had been held at Gettysburg before, including one to commemorate the 15th anniversary, but this one would trump them all.

    https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/28128/gettysburg-great-reunion-1913

    Reply
  23. gaffstergal - July 15, 2021 1:24 pm

    What a wonderful tribute to my favorite president and such a holy place! Sick though he was physically, his classy eloquence and reverence lives on. How I wish every American could read this today. We’ve lost so much in our digital affluence…but then…it allows us to read your blog.

    Reply
  24. Lisa Wilcox - July 15, 2021 1:32 pm

    Got something stuck in my eye reading this post. Thank you for that- especially in this day and age when people are tearing down monuments trying to erase history.

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  25. Sue Rhodus - July 15, 2021 1:36 pm

    ” gone to seed” I haven’t heard that phrase in years. I am one who recognizes the reference. I am old, you are not..but we share common ground. My wishes are for all Americans to pay tribute to the history that formed our nation.

    Reply
  26. Norma Den - July 15, 2021 2:03 pm

    I’m South African born, grew up in what’s now Zambia. My maternal grandfather was In the US merchant marines, born in Utah. None of us know much more about him other than he jumped ship to fight in the Boer War, not sure which side. He married my grandmother when she was just sixteen and never ever went back to the US. There are times when I am proud to be part American, occasionally not so proud. However one of my all time heroes is Abraham Lincoln. In 1995 while in the US with my husband for a convention, we spent a few days with friends we had made on a European coach tour. At that time they were living in Frederick, Maryland. Don was a Senior Vice President with State Farm Insurance and was actually at a meeting at the White House the day we arrived. What a wonderful memory this has brought back. We went to the Vietnam Memorial, Harper’s Ferry, a college football game ( sorry guys but I still can’t understand American Football rules). The best day was going to the Lutheran church with them and then spending the rest of the day in Gettysburg. Don was amazed at how knowledgeable we were on US history, I actually learned it in History class in Zambia way back. The Lincoln Monument was another fantastic visit, as was the Space museum. My Mother could recite the Gettysburg address and I’m able to recite parts too. God bless America, unite her people and let there be peace. Please say a prayer for South Africa going through serious Covid and troubled times. Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
    • TINK - July 15, 2021 4:24 pm

      Reply
  27. Lisa Smith - July 15, 2021 2:06 pm

    Well said… brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

    Reply
  28. Lulu - July 15, 2021 2:46 pm

    Sean, you wrote of reciting President Lincoln’s magnificent address. I seriously doubt if any student could do so today. I wonder if they even know of Gettysberg…where it is, what it is…the Civil War? Some are successfully stamping out part of our history…how dare they? They dare because they protest loud enough to drown out we, the people. I pray our nation, under God…will not fail. This America must stand and be counted for all things good. Thanks for your beautiful writing, Sean. Great words!

    Reply
  29. Karen Goss - July 15, 2021 2:58 pm

    Goosebumps through the whole column. So grateful for those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom‘s. I have two children serving in the army and I am such a proud army mommy! Another great column, Sean.

    Reply
  30. wfsuga - July 15, 2021 3:00 pm

    “War Between the States.” Thanks for using that phrase. My grandmother would have never called the conflict anything else.

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  31. Tom Wallin - July 15, 2021 3:06 pm

    Thanks for your story. Gettysburg and Arlington Cemetery both left large impressions with me during my life.

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  32. Kathie - July 15, 2021 3:19 pm

    Your writing has touched my heart again today. May God bless America again.

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  33. Christina - July 15, 2021 3:22 pm

    You have a way of helping us see the beauty and truth that unites this country. Thanks, Sean!

    Reply
  34. Robyn - July 15, 2021 3:48 pm

    Now I have to go Sean…thank you.

    Reply
  35. Mary - July 15, 2021 4:14 pm

    Oh, how we have lost sight of this, a lot of us plain citizens and especially our elected officials that we elected.

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  36. Tinkabell - July 15, 2021 4:22 pm

    I love the way you go to the HEART if things. ❤

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  37. Linda Moon - July 15, 2021 5:42 pm

    I’ve heard about that brief speech. Your fourth-grade teacher was right, and my hope also is that students still memorize the speech and its expression of liberty and freedom. This retired teacher (me) heard the voices and saw you, too, as I imagined you as one of my former students. Thank you for teaching me, a lifelong learner.

    Reply
  38. Lou - July 15, 2021 5:45 pm

    My sons are United States Marines. They have been on many battlefields. I have forwarded your column to them. Thank you. We have been to Gettysburg several times. Stand still and listen to the wind. You can almost hear the ghosts.

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  39. MAM - July 15, 2021 6:08 pm

    And now we must fight to keep our freedoms. Even if it’s not armed battles, the battles of words must continue. Your words, Sean, have helped us remember what is important!

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  40. Captain John - July 15, 2021 7:08 pm

    Awesome

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  41. Chasity Davis Ritter - July 15, 2021 8:12 pm

    Beautiful as always. And poignant too. I’m glad you got to be there at that exact moment and to share in the memory that little girl will hopefully take with her always.

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  42. LauraD - July 15, 2021 8:21 pm

    We are fortunate enough to live only about 3 hours away, I imagine we have been to Gettysburg a minimum of 35 times (always for a minimum of 2 days) to walk the fields, the hills, clamber around Devil’s Den, study the monuments and reflect on the 3 days of battle. It is such a solemn place. I am glad you were able to visit these hallowed grounds.

    Reply
  43. Steve McCaleb - July 15, 2021 8:43 pm

    Loved your Dennis Hopper reference….my all time favorite celebrity interview was with The illustrious Mr. Hopper. When the tv talking head asked him how he had transitioned from a foaming at the mouth leftist to a staunch God & Country conservative…..Dennis smiled a wry smile and said “It’s simple….I got sober.” Words to live by. Oh and before I forget, God bless you Brother Bob Howard. Your heart felt words were a balm to my bruised soul. Thank you sir.

    Reply
  44. Mary - July 15, 2021 11:15 pm

    Thanks for visiting Gettysburg and writing such a beautiful piece about these brave men who died for their country. Both of my great great grandfathers fought in the civil war. My dad’s side fought for the north in Pennsylvania, my mom’s side fought for the south in Virginia.

    Reply
  45. Susan Kennedy - July 16, 2021 12:43 am

    Absolutely perfect.

    Reply
  46. Bill prather - July 16, 2021 11:08 am

    Excellent column for today or any day

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  47. M. Massey - July 16, 2021 2:12 pm

    Lovely❤️

    Reply
  48. Jerry R McKee - July 16, 2021 7:38 pm

    I shared this one with several friends. Although the Civil War has become a lightening rod for controversy, your column rose above that level and gave me pause. Today, for one brief moment, I had hope that our country could get its act together and rise above the fractionation once again, as President Lincoln encouraged us to do at Gettysburg. The imagery that your column created was simply fabulous- like a Rockwell. Damn son, this was a good one!

    Reply
  49. Suzi - July 18, 2021 1:52 am

    🇺🇸

    Reply
  50. Bill Harris - July 22, 2021 1:23 am

    Thank you Sean

    Reply

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