When former Brigadier General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and fellow veterans of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment returned to the Gettysburg battlefield 23 years after the day they had saved “Little Round Top” – and perhaps The Union itself - Chamberlain began his dedicatory remarks with these words:
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate the ground for the vision-place of souls. 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 done and suffered for them. . .”
Each time I have visited Gettysburg, I have felt myself “heart-drawn” to places such as “Spangler’s Spring” and “Barlow Knoll”; to “Devil’s Den” and the “Peach Orchard”; to Culp’s Hill” and “The Wheat Field”; and yes, above all to “Little Round Top” from whose high perch I have gone to view a Pennsylvania sunset and to consider what transpired there during the first three days of a hot July in1863. I have never left with dry eyes.
Even if it were not for my nearly-lifelong admiration for the scholar from Brewer, Maine who studied for the ministry, but became a great self-taught soldier, I would find myself revisiting those spoken words over and over again through the years, enlarged upon and made even more eloquent in the shadow of my own experiences.
While there is no scientific evidence that “spirits linger”, I devoutly believe that the spiritual imprint of great human endeavors does. I have felt it where autumn foliage cast deep reflections on a small body of woodland water not far from “Shiloh Church” on the Tennessee River which is still known as “Bloody Pond”. I have been touched by it in Antietam’s cornfields and at the sight of the old Dunker church nearby. One day as I explored a patch of woods at the “Wilderness” battle site, I came across the still-discernible outline of old trench works, where men in Gray took cover as the woods around them burned, and I found myself lying down on the weed-encrusted ground, where so much confusion and fear had overwhelmed those who sheltered there so long ago.
Because I knew the exact spot where “Stonewall” Jackson fell – mortally wounded by friendly fire – I knelt there one summer day, at a place called Chancellorsville, where the “victors” suffered a loss they would never regain. And one cannot ascend the hill above Fredericksburg’s “sunken road” and walk among the dead buried there and not feel one with those Union troopers who succumbed to the folly of Union General Ambrose Burnside’s suicidal orders. It is a solemn journey.
As a very young lad, living within a stone’s throw of the New Jersey Palisades, I was a regular visitor to the exact spot where, in November, 1776 General George Washington watched through a telescope as his ragtag Army across the Hudson River was being shredded by Cornwallis’s rampaging invaders. Helpless to save them in the collapse of their New York fortifications, it is said that Washington was so moved by the scene that he turned away so his lieutenants would not see him weeping. That November tableau was painted by the brush of history 238 years ago, yet today I see and feel Washington’s inconsolable grief as if I were there. To realize that I grew up climbing the Palisades (unknown to my parents!) where so much history had been written only adds to the sense of connection which seems to follow my own footsteps wherever I go.
While it is unlikely I will ever realize a long-time wish to walk the beaches of Normandy, or visit the place near Chateau Thierry in France where my own father fell to enemy fire 96 years ago in another war, I have experienced the heart-pounding thrill of walking through an early morning ground mist in the company of the aluminum-cast and ghostly figures of “brother warriors” at the Korean War memorial in Washington, D.C., where there was no need to apologize to anyone for the tears that filled my eyes.
In great deeds, something abides. On great fields something stays. This I know!
A Gettysburg sunset as seen from Little Round Top.
Al Cooper Photo