Sunday, on a whim, my wife, our Chihuahua – Stacey, and I loaded into the Tahoe and drove to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It's not a very long trip. Crossing into Frederick County, Maryland, and then north into Pennsylvania, it's only 62 miles. The route we took brought us to the historic battlefield
before we entered the town. First – to the purists – I have a great deal of interest in the Great Civil War and its famous battles but I am not a "Civil War buff."
Years ago, I took a trip with General James Longstreet
. I was particularly interested in Longstreet because of William Shaeffer Neal. Now those of you who are unfamiliar with one of greatest strategists in the Civil War would be even more unfamiliar with a foot soldier who served under that general. I had been commissioned by a member of the Neal family of Alabama to chronicle the lives of the Neal antecedents and William Shaeffer Neal was a noteworthy member of the family.
I had notes and records on his life as a boy, the family Bible, his schooling, his life after the Civil War, and his life as an educator. Unfortunately, I had no notes or diaries on his experiences in the war.
The best I could do was taking Neal's unit designations, which I did have, and follow him and General Longstreet in the various campaigns and battles that inevitably led to Lee's surrender at Appomattox. One of the stops along the way was the Battle of Gettysburg
During this time, I immersed myself in as much of the Great Civil War as I could stand. A great help was the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War
. I also took a class, which surveyed the causes of the war. I'm still somewhat confused. I do not understand how decent peaceful citizens could suddenly go at each other's throats resulting in a war that was the most costly in American history – 629,000 deaths (some estimates are higher). Of that total, 51,000 died in three days, July1 - July 3, during the Battle of Gettysburg.
Walking through the battlefield at Gettysburg is great exercise. It is an immense area – over 600 acres are incorporated into the national park. From the historic accounts, photographs, and drawings, there is no doubt that every square inch of the battlefield was drenched in someone's blood. At the end of the visit to the site, I had more questions than before. The most troubling thought occurred to me as I viewed the path of the ill-fated Pickett's Charge
– I thought, "This could happen again. Americans still have the capacity and potential for civil war."
Maybe the reason it is important to preserve as much of our wartime history as possible is so we learn not to repeat the same mistakes and to remind us, sadly, that we can repeat them.