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"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 sufferend and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream."
--Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

Saturday, February 12, 2011

History for a Microwave World--Colonial Williamsburg's Revolutionary City

It should be pretty obvious that I have a great affection for history.  I could (and have) spend an entire Saturday watching episodes of History Channel's The Revolution (oh, the wigs are bad, but the history is great!).  I look forward to taking a walking tour of a historic city or driving from battlefield tour stop to tour stop with a pamphlet in hand.  I read great tomes of history.  But then, I understand that I am not exactly normal.

History has often gotten a reputation of being boring and inaccessible, a list of names and dates that may come in handy for Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit, but doesn't put anything into context.  At Colonial Williamsburg, they've been able to balance the the need for concise information and the need to put it into context and the result is the three part living history presentation called Revolutionary City. 

As part of your Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, you are invited to join the cast of colonials in a multi-part presentation taking place at various locations in the historic district.  Each day's presentations features a number of short vignettes lasting 15-20 minutes each, compact snapshots of important historical events in the larger framework of the Revolution.  As the crowd gathers and moves from one location to the other, they get to be a part of the townspeople's reading of the Declaration of Independence, hiss at former American general turned British occupier Benedict Arnold as he returns to Williamsburg with his occupying force, and  be party to the agonizing discussion of slaves as they ponder the British offer of freedom for those who belong to revolutionary households.

This is history at its most compelling and easiest to understand.  You won't find a litany of names and dates here, but rather the personal stories that make up one of the most intriguing chapter of our collective history.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

At the feet of Warren

There is something edifying about seeing the throngs of people, of all ages, races and creeds, flocking to this nation's most popular and well-known Civil War site.  I've watched as Boy Scout Troops hiked across West Confederate Avenue, stopping traffic.  I've been stopped as horseback riders walk their mounts across the Emmitsburg Road.  I've stood at the back of a crowd of school students listening to a Ranger tell about the fighting around the Devil's Den.  I've had to park nearly a quarter of a mile away from the Pennsylvania Monument and hoof it.  And all of those things are fine.  In fact, they are encouraging. I love to see others eyes' opened to my passion and to feel the import of those things that happened here.

But also, I am impatient.  I don't like crowds.  And when on a battlefield, I really just want to find a place where I can sit quietly and think about things.  Where I can be absorbed into the atmosphere around me.  And Gettysburg isn't exactly a place where it is easy to do that.

This summer, however, the stars were aligned and my long day of exploration finally paid off.  It was late when I finally drove my car up to the top of Little Round Top.  The sun was low in the sky and it was the time of the early evening known as "the golden hour", where the sun's low rays paint everything with a soft golden glow highly conducive to photography.  If I was lucky, I told myself as I wended my way to the top of the hill, there wouldn't be too many people at the top milling around aimlessly and making it difficult to get that perfect photo of the broad battlefield below.

Imagine my surprise when I found Little Round Top, possibly the single most popular destination at the single most popular battlefield, nearly deserted.

Almost giddily, I circled the area's sole resident, General Gouverneur K. Warren, the "Saviour of Little Round Top" cast in bronze, gazing westward with binoculars in his right hand and saber in his left.  He has been photographed often, but I had found the perfect photo of him elusive until that day.  Now, I clicked away, grinning and mumbling to myself, careful not to sprain my ankle again (that's a tale for another time) or trip over my own two left feet and take a tumble down the boulder strewn face.

And then, in the bliss of silence, I sat on top of a nearby boulder, drew my knees up and followed Warren's gaze.

This slope, cleared of trees well before the battle, and strewn with boulders was just such a vantage point during the battle.  The view below is by and large the same that Warren had when, after a "mis-diployment" of troops by Union General Sickles, who was commanded to defend the left flank of the Union line, he was sent to this undefended high ground and called for nearby troops to rush to its defense.

The attacks here on Day Two were fierce, but the most famous of the many assaults came up the slope on the southwest side of the hill.  To the left and behind this position, the 20th Maine held the extreme left of the Union line.  Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's troops had held off multiple Confederate charges by the 15th Alabama and, when running low on ammunition, were ordered to fix bayonets and, with guns and bayonets leveled, charged the oncoming Confederates.  The move beat back the Confederate attack, secured the Union left flank, and thrust the professor and orator into American lore.  A short walk on a well-marked path to the southeast commemorates their valiant efforts.

And from this vantage point, it is easy to hear the echo of Chamberlain's words as I sit to ponder and to dream.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Peace of this Place: North Anna Battlefield Park

North Anna Battlefield Park is a small, relatively new park preserving some 80 acres of land at the heart of the May 1864 conflict.  The park has one 2.25 mile out-and-back trail that is well maintained, well marked and is dotted with informative signage.  When I was there, in late afternoon in May of 2010, the flagman who had to waive me through so that I wasn't smashed by heavy tri-axle trucks entering and exiting the adjacent gravel pit looked like he was startled to see a car coming up the access road, and when I pulled into the small parking area, my car was the only one there. 

The neighboring gravel pit notwithstanding (the company donated the land for the battlefield park, a move I respect and appreciate), the short hike under the thick canopy of trees along a portion of the historic trace of Ox Ford Road was peaceful.  Occasional rustles in the woods made me think I had jumped a deer, though later discussions with my deer hunting husband revealed that since it sounded like a tennis ball being rolled in the woods, all I had managed to accomplish was to startle a few squirrels from their perches.

After I spent some time at the outlook at Ox Ford, I walked back enjoying the solitude of my hike in the green filtered light and pondering the strategic brilliance of the position of Lee's lines.   In the shape of a V, with the point on the North Anna at Ox Ford, Lee assured that if Grant were to attack him, Grant's front would have to be much longer than his own, and, should the need arise to shuffle troops from one side of the line to support the other, Lee's internal lines were much easier to support than Grant's whose troops would have to cross the North Anna twice to reinforce either end of the line.

But soon, I started to notice that now, late in the afternoon, the gravel pit had shut down for the day.  The sun was sliding lower, and for a moment, I stopped, took a couple of deep breaths and just enjoyed the silence.  What struck me then was the absolute peace that pervaded this space.  Though I've never really thought much about it before, I have felt this peace at other battlefields.  As my feet started to move slowly back to my car, I thought about this amazing irony.

Why is it that these places of terrible human carnage are now places of profound peace?

I don't believe in ghosts in the conventional sense--spirits trapped on earth and appearing in apparitions--but I do believe the spirits of the dead are able to watch us here on earth.  And on that quiet walk it almost seemed like the peace of this place was a benediction for all of those souls who had lost their lives on this ground.