Friday, July 1, 2016

Gettysburg: Etched In History And Experience On This Day In 1863

Today marks the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1-3, 1863, and the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America. A year later, in August 1864, the Union unconditionally controlled the Mississippi River and relentlessly pressed Confederate forces in Virginia. In the Deep South, General Sherman's army devastated Atlanta. Six months later, he would be in Savannah and poised to destroy the remains of the Confederacy as he moved north through the Carolinas.

The American Civil War is a perennial topic in our history. Indeed, it did preserve the Union as President Abraham Lincoln intended and left us with any number of consequences in our national experience, both good and bad. Regarding those consequences, we should not expect otherwise as that is the way events unfold in the great wheel of history. And so it is with our great wheels of personal experience. 

Approaching my seventh decade immersed in all of this I'm a bit surprised and certainly privileged to have experienced Gettysburg at 100 and 150. The place is a personal holy ground because three people cared.

The Old Ranger and his dad at Gettysburg, National Military Park in 1954

First of all. my parents always loved being in nature and its historical overlay. Living in the Potomac River watershed afforded our family many opportunities to enjoy any number of places of national significance. As is often the case, first impressions become lasting ones. I was seven years old when we spent a long weekend exploring almost every foot of Gettysburg National Military Park. It was a fascinating experience and I still have the souvenirs to prove it. 

The Old Ranger with his mom at Gettysburg National Military Park, 1954

About six years later I met George Landis, the third person in this story. Landis taught middle school history and social studies on the eve of the Civil War Centennial in 1959. A Pennsylvanian with a love of history and basketball he devoted an entire school year to the study of the Civil War. He was a superb teacher, highly animated and far ahead of his time. He focused on learning that took his students beyond lectures into the world of role-playing, performance, critical thinking and more. I recall fondly seeing every blackboard in his classroom filled with detailed maps of battles, each carefully drawn and labelled with colored chalk. A little more than a decade after my year with Landis, I began a long and rewarding career immersed in experiential learning in the sacred places and histories preserved in our national parks.

There will be tens of thousands of people visiting Gettysburg this week as well as many thousands of volunteers recreating and commemorating the events that took place there. There will be lasting impressions made this week about the sacrifices, the consequences, and the wheels of history both national and personal. Somewhere in the crowd there will be a seven year-old with a new enthusiasm for this defining moment in our national experience. It is reassuring to know the commemorative landscape at Gettysburg, with the pride and serenity of an old veteran, will be waiting there  to welcome him on his return visit in 2066.

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