Drawn to the Battlefield

So I’m driving right now,  heading up the road from the National Capital Region, and I see on my left the long lines of marching hills. Treetopped ranks stretching into the distance. The South Mountain Range. Home of so much of what I’ve studied in war, in history, and culture; and suddenly my heart seems to feel as if it’s almost home. Driving through the rich farmlands of Maryland, I feel the sense of wonder at the great hope that is America, that feeling of possibility…the feeling of – I don’t know – something undefined that I guess we’re all looking for. This is where I find it.

And suddenly there it is: the sign for Steinwehr Avenue, Gettysburg. 

And on an impulse ungoverned by a lot of common sense I suppose, I pull off, feeling the ties that bind me to this place. A definite pull. Steinwehr Avenue, named for General Adolph von Steinwehr, a German immigrant, and I know I shouldn’t be making this turn. It’s just adding more time to my trip but there’s no way I can’t. It’s like there’s strings that tug at me, pulling me towards one place, one specific spot in the world that has always held a fascination to me. Always held an almost mystical place in my conscious, I suppose, and in my heart. A mixture of spiritual and mental peace in a place that was the antithesis of peace.

And now I’m driving along the Emmitsburg Road and there’s the sign to pull off onto the battlefield, and I’m on South Confederate Avenue. Now I’m passing the guns, and the positions of Benning’s Brigade where the Georgians began their assault and I see off to my left the dominating heights crowned by trees that is Big Round Top. Then I round the corner and begin down into the descent towards Devil’s Den. Now there it is. I see Vincent’s Spur, where the 20th Maine held its position. I see the rocks, the walls, the trees, and now I’m driving slowly up Little Round Top, right through the lines as it were.

And now I’m on the crest amongst Hazlett’s guns, looking down the slope at the world below. It’s peaceful, and quiet, and cold, and slightly as magical as it ever was – in a way that makes no sense. I pause for a moment to take it in and then I turn left and walk down the slope, past  O’Rourke and Weed and Vincent. And now I’m walking down the short trail, turning into the woods on my own small, private, intimate historical-spiritual pilgrimage. Past the rock walls that line the edges of the slopes intertwined with overgrowth and trees until I round the corner and come to the spot where 200 Maine men stood, and then I stop and I think and I listen: I just…be.

And now, as quickly as I came I’m gone. On my way again. But knowing that this place still exists and will be here gives me a sense of peace and comfort, which again makes no sense to a rational mind, but there it is. Memory and place are interwined, inextricably. We all have zones of memory, some good, some bad. And if you can find the good ones, make sure you know where to find them and return to them when you can.

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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

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