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Sherman Says: All roads are leading to Gettysburg

SPRINGVILLE — Last week’s observance of Memorial Day, which was originally set aside as a day to honor Civil War soldiers killed in action, is important, because it is a precursor to one of the most solemn anniversaries in American history.

In five weeks, more than 10,000 re-enactors will converge on Gettysburg, Pa., to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the largest battle ever fought, in our country. Also expected are thousands of civilian interpreters, 400 horses and 100 cannons.

The media relations manager for the anniversary is Carl Whitehill, a former newspaper reporter from Dunkirk and Jamestown. “The entire year will be part of the commemoration,” he said. “Gettysburg is a Civil War town, every day, all year round.”

The battle lasted for three, bloody days, but did not force the end of the Civil War. The actual anniversary is July 1 – 3, but the combat re-enactments are scheduled for July 4 – 7, to coincide with the Independence Day weekend. In keeping with the community’s serious approach to history, all battles will be narrated by Gettysburg National Military Park-licensed battlefield guides.

“The National Park Service records 3,155 Union and 3,500 Confederate deaths, over the three days, but some students of the battle believe that the Confederate death toll was much higher.

Thousands more were mortally wounded. The two armies, combined, suffered more than 50,000 wounded, captured and missing. By a wide margin, Gettysburg spilled more blood than any other Civil War engagement,” Joel Achenbach wrote, in The Washington Post.

My great-great grandfather fought in the Union Army, with the First Maryland Cavalry, also known as “Cole’s Cavalry.” Those men were also referred to as the “Potomac Home Brigade.”

A woman told me that her grandchildren love to ride horses on the battlefield. They rent horses from the Artillery Ridge campground, where riding tours of the site are offered. Viewers can see Gettysburg from the same perspective as their ancestors did, so long ago.

This year’s event will draw a large number of people to the small town, but this is not the first time such a large-scale gathering has been planned, in honor of the best-known Civil War battle.

The 1913 grand reunion was described as the nation’s last attempt to pay tribute to all those who fought at Gettysburg, Union and Confederate soldiers alike. It was a reunion of veterans, as well as a gesture of healing.

This year’s Gettysburg weekend will be about more than people dressed in period costume, to stage battle scenes. It will be about primitive battlefield medical procedures, the resilience of a small town that was devastated by war and how instantaneous decisions had a lasting impact, on the future of the United States.

It will thrill spectators with pageantry and song, as well as inspire scrutiny of military tactics never considered by average citizens, then or now.

It will also pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives to uphold President Abraham Lincoln’s desire for a new birth of freedom. It will be a tribute to Lincoln, who traveled by train, four months later, to give one of the greatest speeches, of all time.

Five decades ago, countless families made Gettysburg a family summer vacation destination, as the battle’s centennial was observed. Keep in mind that an effort to understand the battle and its impact is more than a summer history lesson.

We should avoid the clutter of commercialism that cropped up, some years ago, around the fringes of the battlefield. Every marker tells a story of a generation that came perilously close to seeing the Union dissolved. Whether you take a motorized tour, walk across the battlefield or ride a horse, remember that Gettysburg is hallowed ground.

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.
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