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Carnett: Addressing a Gettysburg fascination

July 01, 2013|By Jim Carnett

What if?

It's the age-old query of the historian. And, through its lens, one can view any war and the subsequent history.

What if the Moors had won the battle of Tours? What if the Allies had been turned back at Normandy? What if Robert E. Lee had broken through the Union center at Gettysburg?

This week America honors the 150th, or sesquicentennial, anniversary of the bloodiest battle in its history — Gettysburg. It was fought over a three-day period, July 1 to 3, 1863.

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Fifty years ago I was an 18-year-old college freshman during the centennial celebration of the battle. I'm ashamed to admit that at the time I knew precious little of the war.

Then, the only exposure I'd had to the "War Between the States" — other than a lecture or two in a history class — was Stephen Crane's novel, "The Red Badge of Courage." But, long after high school graduation — and some necessary oak-barrel aging — I began to develop an appreciation for history.

I was introduced to the Civil War three decades ago while taking an ad hoc battlefield tour in Manassas, Va., I squeezed in a self-guided tour while on a Washington, D.C. business trip. Manassas — close to D.C. — was the site of two Civil War battles.

I was hooked.

I've since read dozens of books on the war, attended classes and lectures, and walked countless battlefields. I'm currently reading Allen Guelzo's new book: "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion." It's probably the 10th or 12th volume on Gettysburg I've read. My Gettysburg education began with Michael Shaara's fine 1974 novel, "The Killer Angels."

I've visited Gettysburg six or seven times, and have walked Pickett's Charge on multiple occasions. The nearly mile-wide piece of real estate, from Seminary Ridge on the west to Cemetery Ridge on the east, was the focus of a fateful Confederate charge on the afternoon of July 3, 1863.

Though the small stone wall in front of the Union line was briefly breached by the graycoats, the charge was repulsed. Scarcely half the nearly 14,000 Confederates who made the charge returned safely to their own lines.

I've lingered in front of that wall, facing the now silent Union batteries, and thought of the boys whose bodies were reduced to pulp by canister shot from the cannons. Lives were ended that day before they'd begun.

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