What follows is not an original entry. Rather, this is a piece I added to the "Freelance" tab of my site, being that when I wrote this on June 30, 2014 (exactly one year ago today), I had not yet established my blog. This piece is copied, word for word, from my original entry, with the exception of all references to "151" and "151st," with regard to the years since, and anniversary of, the Battle of Gettysburg. One year has passed; thus, I have amended all such cases to now read, "152" or "152nd."
Though the year has changed, the sentiment and the point of this writing have not. I hope I have conveyed (as I always strive to do) the personal importance and connection I find to this event, a seminal event in the history of the American republic.
I sit upon a rock at the top of a hill, at its western slope overlooking a valley known simply and aptly as Death. The name connotes the ultimate form of human demise —an end which shows suffering, yet a common sense of peace in knowing all that is bad, is over.
If I had been living several generations prior—152 years ago, to be exact—this rock would have been nothing more than a slab of stone overlooking farmers’ fields and boulder-strewn outcroppings. The simplicity of life in the hamlet just to the north of where I now rest my weary legs would have been prosperous. It was not a place where anyone could have suspected the worst of the human spirit would be exemplified. But when one looks into the words, the very thoughts, of those who had lived through the tumult of desperation in those times, it appears that after the evening of June 30, 1863, the tiny village and its surroundings would leave its simplistic measures behind, and essentially become a place for no survivors—the hamlet of life would resort to the Shakespearian Hamlet of all that is death to nearly all who are involved.
My eyes look up into the darkening sky and see the last moments of the sun’s life glistening over the treetops to the northwest, down behind the slopes of South Mountain. Had I been here on this night those many years ago, I could have seen the furthest reaches of the hill named Oak, and the brick edifice of the Seminary—a place which has trained ministers of peace for nearly two centuries. On the morrow, 152 years ago, men on horseback and men of iron would be led by a Kentuckian in his finest hour and a native Pennsylvanian in his last hour.
The rendezvous with destiny for the boys in blue and butternut was just hours away. But it had not happened yet. It had not transpired. Life was still intact, though trepidation reigned through the streets of the town. Would the battle happen here, or northward? Would the loss of life be staggering, or the flag of truce prove superior? I cannot feel the feelings those brave men and women felt, nor can I see the lines of armed men that they saw. But I can be called to the fields, the hills, and this rock. I can learn their stories and feel their presence. I can read their words. Words are, after all, the immortal fingerprint of the human spirit.
I shift my glance southward along that ridge, where the lines of gray-clad men, disheveled and downtrodden though they are, now stay for the following days. On the morrow, 152 years ago, they will be characterized with an air of excitement, for the first day is ultimately theirs. They will push their navy-clad enemies southward, toward my rock, and in their wake leave tens of thousands dead and dying. I see across their lines, to the vantage point of the Cemetery, and the hill upon which it rests. The dead of this town rest peacefully, though turn and point toward the intruders and silently pray for their own defense. On the evening of the second day of the looming contest, a nighttime battle ensues upon those graves, but first, nearer to me, the extreme left of the line is to be saved in the nick of time. Men from Maine and New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, will defend this hill.
I look down, and to my right, at the field of wheat farmed by the man named Rose. On this eve before the battle, 152 years ago, he does not heed the call of the commonwealth’s governor. He does not harvest his crop; instead, it will turn the blood-red color of a rose when it becomes a harvest of death.
Nearer to me rests the den seemingly created by the Devil himself—though the rocks seem to have been built as headstones by the hands of God. From there, upwards toward the slope in my vicinity, thousands will perish as they struggle for this rocky knoll. I cannot hear the groans of the wounded, nor the cries of the dying; I cannot see the corpses bloating, nor the helpless disfigurations crawling. But I can be called to this place of chaos. Yet, it has not happened yet. Now, as it was the night before the conflict, it is a place of peace.
I turn to my right, toward a platform of peach trees, upon which the gray guns will eventually rest their spokes. They will tear into the gaping holes of the blue lines, and send the young men fleeing. Both sides have seen enough of this torrential war. They are no longer fighting for glory, but for the opportunity to live in a peaceful nation, a place void of tyranny and full of hope. I likely think the same thoughts they did then, though I cannot say I could face the same situations with half of the selflessness, patriotism, or courage they did. But there is no need yet. It has not happened on this eve, 152 years ago.
Then I look upward, toward the ridge at the base of the hill bearing the cemetery, and I see the angular meeting of the stone fences—boundaries which mark the highest of points toward which Southerners will ever reach. I am reminded of the anecdotes whereby a line one mile in length marched across a field one mile in width, only to face the death of half of its force. I cannot see the lines, nor the terror; I cannot smell the stench of death, nor the burning timber. But it has not happened yet. On this eve, 152 years ago, that ridge is home to the farms of hardworking laborers and former enslaved humans. It is a safe haven, well beyond the imaginable reaches of struggling armed forces locked in a death grapple.
And now I look back to the rock upon which I sit. I peer down into my surroundings, and back up toward the now-invisible sun, which is now hidden behind the far mountains. All around me it is dark. All around me it is silent. All around me it is symbolic—a reminiscence of something through which I have never lived. I had not seen the town prior to the first three days of July 1863—the only reason I am sitting on this rock is because of happened on those days. The tiny hamlet has never really been the same.
I do not know this place because of its carriages, or educational institutions, or rich soil. I know this place because of its carnage, and its loneliness, and its horror. I have not lived through these things, nor have I felt the sting of a bullet to the torso, nor the feeling of what it must be like to see a loved one die within inches of me. But I can see their stories through images, and read their words to know the inner thoughts of what is to come. Had I sat upon this rock so long ago, I would not have seen a thing in this darkness—but now, 152 years later, I see it all. But at the same time, I see nothing.
The stone tablets and likenesses of the warriors across these fields lurk in the valley, and on the rocks around me. They peer into the darkness, and look toward the vantage points which their real-life counterparts want me to see. I can see it all before it begins in the distance. No one has perished; all are alive. This is a place of solace and peace. It is unimaginable that this could be a place of war.
I am reminded that I am sitting at this place—upon a rock at the top of a hill, at its western slope overlooking a valley known simply and aptly as Death. The name connotes the ultimate form of human demise—an end which shows suffering, yet a common sense of peace in knowing all that is bad, is over.
But it is not over. It has not yet begun—152 years ago.