By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
As most of the Western world honored the warriors who died on June 6, 1944, on that great sweep of beaches along the coast of Normandy, I was standing on a Pennsylvania hillock Saturday, looking at a farmer's field.
In the summer of 1863, John Rose had a fine crop of grain growing on those 20 acres when, on the evening of July 2, the second of three days of fighting around the town of Gettysburg, the Union and Confederate armies collided there. This small plot of land became known forever as "the Wheatfield."
I don't mean to, nor could I, take anything away from the men who fought on Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day. If you have walked those golden sands, and looked up at the bluffs they had to take, and the commanding position of the German gun emplacements, you recognize bravery.
But you don't have to go to France to witness American courage.
Indeed, America suffered greater casualties in two hours at the little Wheatfield than on all the beaches at Normandy during all the fighting on D-Day. Imagine that. Imagine the carnage brought to the screen in Saving Private Ryan, and think of it happening in two hours, on just 20 acres, here in the U.S. of A.
Because the Civil War pitted American against American, I am counting casualties from both sides at the Wheatfield, and only our soldiers at Normandy. But then the Wheatfield was just a corner of the great battle that also made Devil's Den and Little Round Top and the Peach Orchard famous, and culminated the next day with Pickett's Charge up Cemetery Hill.
I was at Gettysburg as a guest of the Civil War Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization that rescues Civil War battlefields from bulldozers. Last weekend was the annual four-day conference of this group of tens of thousands of Americans, from North and South, who chip in each year to save "hallowed ground" from development.
The Trust uses that money to qualify for federal and state matching funds, and lures Hollywood and literary stars (Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Duvall, Jeff Shaara) to help publicize the cause, but it and other preservation groups are running a losing race against rising property values in the exurbs of Washington, D.C., Richmond, Atlanta, and other cities. Capitalism is remorseless. A few weeks back, I wrote here about the CWPT and the uphill, ongoing struggle to try and stop Wal-Mart from building a shopping center on the Wilderness battlefield in Virginia.
It is an interesting mix of people who choose to spend their money buying land they will never own, and saving it for the rest of us. Most are military history buffs. Most are guys. Many are veterans. The old soldiers know their stuff, and mix easily with the nerds. There were a surprising number of Marines, when one considers that the corps played such a negligible role in the Civil War.
(I am being deliberately provocative. What is a good Civil War discussion without a controversy? Your turn, leathernecks.)
The highlights of the CWPT conference are the guided tours. Among historians, there are eminent scholars who can't talk, and some great talkers who don't do the history. A great guide is a bit of both; Gettysburg has some of the best in the business, and the CWPT brought in others. If you go to the battlefield—which has just opened a new multimillion-dollar visitors' center in time for the 150th anniversary of the war in 2011—invest the time and money to hire one of the licensed guides. Garry Adelman, Timothy Smith, and Charles Fennell (to whom I am indebted for the D-Day and Wheatfield comparison) were my tour guides, and I recommend them all.
The guides spend a large part of their time taking junior high and middle school classes through the battlefield, and so they have to be sharp, funny, and entertaining to keep the interest of our jaded youth. They are anything but dull. Fennell led us for eight hours on Friday, through seven or eight miles of mud, swollen streams, soggy weeds and woods, in a steady downpour, and suffered only 10 percent casualties.
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