GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Wandering this low hilly battlefield, hallowed forever by 51,000 boys and men who were casualties here 150 years ago in a grisly three-day bloodbath that was a turning point in America’s Civil War — a 1960s melancholy song kept intruding into my thoughts.
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” written by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, about the sadness of all wars, likening young soldiers everywhere — to flowers sacrificing their beauty in a too-brief life into death and an eternal life cycle.
This past week, concluding today, upward of 200,000 tourists plus re-enactors and 100 journalists from around the world, visited the Gettysburg National Military Park, which with the community, sponsored multiple commemorative events upon the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the clash between Confederate and Union soldiers. Union forces prevailed. Upward of 620,000 died in the four-year war on American soil.
I toured the National Park Service site recently with a National Press Club group lead by the Civil War Trust. There are more than 600 Civil War sites in America.
The battlefield is 5,990 acres. Visitors can walk it, but a variety of guided and freelance tours are offered via your own vehicle with an auto tape, horse or mule and wagon.
We toured by bus, alighting at major sites where our guide, historian Dave Richards, drew verbal pictures so we could visualize snapshots of the battle in progress.
The 139,000-square-foot, $103 million visitor center opened in 2008. It is comfortable and well-thought out with attractive films, displays and large restrooms.
A thorough exploration of the Gettysburg area, about an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., could easily fill two days.
A useful Official Visitor Guide is available through www.gettys
burgtravel.com. Winery and farm tours, ghost tours, shopping are offered.
A tour I marked for next time leaves from the visitor center for a 20-minute ride to the 690-acre President Dwight D. Eisenhower Home and Farm, which Eisenhower donated to the park service in 1967.
The house, with many original furnishings, was a favorite retreat for Ike and his wife, Mamie, during his 1953-1961 presidential term and in retirement. With his West Point background (1915 graduate) and distinguished military career, perhaps he felt solace among fellow soldiers.
Our final stop of the day was a somber visit to the final stop for 3,500 young men and boys at the Soldiers National Cemetery, alongside a Gettysburg city cemetery. Like all similar military cemeteries I have visited worldwide — Verdun, and Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville Sur Mer near Omaha Beach in France — their significance is so poignant, the emotions are engulfing. Grave upon grave upon grave, some with only a number, some with nothing to mark but a small blank stone.
It was here at a dedication ceremony the afternoon of Nov. 19, 1863, behind a huge commemorative monument that President Abraham Lincoln delivered a two-minute speech that became immortal — the Gettysburg address.
Generations of American school children, before Smartphones, iPads, Internet and video games, had to memorize it and can recite it on cue to this day.
“Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation…”.
In 1938, remaining Confederate and Union survivors of Gettysburg met on the battlefield for a final reunion, in what was termed a reconciliation. They shook hands as comrades on the same ground where they had fought to the death.
As we exited that serene resting place, the last verse of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” sung by iconic Peter, Paul & Mary, played in my brain.
“Where have all the soldiers gone? Long time passing. Long time ago. Gone to graveyards every one. Where have all the graveyards gone? Gone to flowers every one. When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”