Several years ago, when I was in the museum business, we decided to do a temporary exhibit on the Gettysburg Address. I e-mailed the NPS to see about borrowing a few artifacts, and they graciously obliged us with some fantastic material. Somebody had to drive up to Pennsylvania to pick it up.
I had never been to Gettysburg, and I was always looking for an excuse to get out of the office anyway, so I booked a rental van to haul the artifacts and got a good friend of mine to tag along, and off we went. Both of us had been on a Civil War quiz bowl team in high school, and everybody on the team had talked vaguely about making a collective trip to Gettysburg over the years, but it had never worked out so that all of us could go at the same time.
Some history road trips get added value from the landscape along the way, and this was one of them. It was a beautiful drive northward through the Shenandoah Valley along I-81. The background music, unfortunately, was ill-suited to the occasion. This was the year that Nelly Furtado’s song “Promiscuous” was released, and for some reason it seemed to be playing incessantly on every single radio station during the drive up. To this day, I associate that song with Gettysburg. (Weird, I know, but your brain is gonna do what your brain is gonna do.)
We got there just after sunset, with just enough daylight left to make out some monuments and wayside markers. There are football towns and college towns and music towns; Gettysburg was a history town. The restaurants were named after generals, the stores sold Confederate t-shirts, and our hotel had Troiani prints in the lobby. It seemed like there was a museum or attraction on every corner. The place had this irresistible mixture of historic architecture and landscape alongside examples of tourist kitsch, a combination I’ve never encountered in the same way anywhere else. It sounds jarring, but it worked; it had an appeal all its own.
The old visitor center was still open then, but many of the artifacts had been moved out in preparation for the opening of the new building. We watched the electric map show and checked out the exhibits, case after case after case full of rifles, swords, and bullet-riddled doors. Then it was out onto the battlefield itself.
We did the “must-see” highlights, the high-water mark and Little Round Top and all the rest of them. All those places mentioned in books and labeled on maps were really there, not as ink on paper but as soil and rock and vegetation. It was like meeting a celebrity and realizing that behind the magazine covers, movie posters, and TV appearances is a real live human being who is standing right in front of you. Right there was the stone wall, and over there was the copse of trees, and there was that hill, all of them instantly recognizable and looking like they hadn’t aged a day since Gardner had taken his photographs.
Like a lot of historic sites, this one had a personality all its own, with its open fields framed by hills and mountains. It looked the way Gettysburg should look, an appropriate arena for a great contest, as if the landscape had known that two armies would be meeting there and had been arranging itself for the occasion. Maybe not for the war’s most decisive battle, but certainly its definitive one.