A strange thing will happen to you if you ever visit Gettysburg, where the largest battle of the Civil War was fought. When you ascend the eminence known as Cemetery Ridge, an eerie silence will envelop you and maybe a little wind will lift you hair as you stand looking out over those Pennsylvania hills. You will study the glass-encased photograph of the very spot where you are standing, taken within days of this ruinous encounter.
“Look at these stone walls” you will likely marvel, “the very ones against which so many fell dead! And these trees with their branchings just so, the very same trees, alive and green and growing still!” But you will whisper, saying this. And you will feel astonished.
Because you thought you had prepared yourself for this visit, through the reading of many books and the viewing of the four-hour long film Gettysburg, shot here in great exception to the strict rule that preserves this place as holy ground. Yet in truth nothing could have prepared you for what you will feel in this place, where for three fierce days, more than 51,000 men were killed or lost or wounded, and the earth went spongy with their blood.
It’s so human: When we’re not in pain we don’t wish to even acknowledge pain’s existence. When we don’t feel threatened with immediate danger we try to forget that living is dangerous.
I went to Gettysburg last spring and in the weeks following watched that heartbreaking film for a second, then a third time, and sent away for four books and DVDs, all edited by William Styple of Belle Grove Press in New Jersey. The two DVDs show ancient footage of the battle’s very participants, in 1913 when they met as thin-boned old men, Yank and Reb, and shook hands across those same stone walls.
The books, called Writing and Fighting from the Army of Northern Virginia, A Collection of Confederate Soldier Correspondence present letters penned by soldiers on both sides, just days or even hours after the war’s many battles.
So starting late yesterday, in order to understand the past, I watched and I read: “I am so tired and broken down” wrote one weary soldier. “We fought all day yesterday and marched all night,” wrote another. “I am still your own dear C.,” wrote a third, in what proved to be the last letter his wife would ever get from him.
Then, in order to understand the present, I went to another site, where our men and women in uniform can post words of appreciation to all the volunteers stateside who get addresses from Operation Paperback and send along all the gently-used soft-cover books they can lay their hands on.
I’ll copy here the letter one young man wrote when he got back from his recent tour of duty:
“I am a soldier who is currently deployed here in the desert. I had some time on my hands and there was a whole shipment of books sent by your organization, and I read and enjoyed one of them. It helped take my mind off things and was solid tangible proof that there were people who had us in their thoughts. Thank you very much for your support of the troops.” (Signed) “John, one of the guys sent to the desert.”
All of our soldiers had friends and families, of course, and lives every bit as filled as our own lives are with that poignant mix of the suddenly dramatic and the blessedly routine.
Today I am thinking of those three men from the 1860s; and I will think too of young John, trying to find some sense of peace and equanimity as, in the desert, he sat quietly reading his book.
Learn more important details about Operation Paperback by going to https://www.facebook.com/OperationPaperback/