I happened upon Gettysburg in much the same way the General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army did – from the south and by chance.
In August of 1990, I was returning from the beach with my wife and one-year-old son. We had left South Carolina two days early and didn’t really have a plan for where we’d stay on the return trip. As new parents, we had learned to build our schedule around our son’s sleep schedule. We assumed we’d find a nice hotel when he indicated to us he had enough of car travel.
That happened with a loud, non-stop shriek as we rounded Washington, D.C. on the Beltway. This was pre-GPS. Using a paper map and our trusty AAA guide book, we ended up at a Holiday Inn in Fredrick, Maryland.
The next morning, we decided to take a more scenic, roundabout way home and hopped on Route 15 North. We put the map away and relied on road signs, our general sense of regional geography, and our fancy to guide us.
Our next mission was to find a place for breakfast. We crossed into Pennsylvania where picturesque towns, farms, the roadside produce stands lined the road.
Before we could get our bearings, we started to sense we were nearing a town that wasn’t garden-variety Small Town USA. The clues presented themselves quickly enough. The houses and buildings were festooned with red, white and blue bunting. A young boy “marched” alongside his parents on the sidewalk. He wore a blue Union Army replica cowboy hat. He carried a toy rifle over his shoulder. There were other kids dressed and behaving similarly. We were near Gettysburg.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, we were in fact entering the town from the same direction, using the same road the Union army used to enter one of the bloodiest battles in American history.
We drove through the town and then decided this was as good as any place to stay. We found a small motel to the west of the town center. We unpacked and went to the coffee shop for breakfast. After that, I asked the hostess if there was anything to see nearby. She tapped the wall behind her and told me on the other side was the small building General Lee used for his headquarters during the battle.
That’s where it started for me. Over the years I’ve gone back to Gettysburg too many times to count.
During that trip, I picked up a copy of Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel “Killer Angels.” As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to go back to Gettysburg. Those fields, houses, monuments would start to resonate with me on the next trip, and they did.
As a family, we found different ways to experience Gettysburg over the years. I remember staying at a bed and breakfast one weekend with my wife. We went to antique shops that time. Then there was the father-son trip I took with my older son. By then, he was one of those boys with the hats and toy guns “marching” into ice cream shops and on sidewalks.
At different times, we saw the town while walking on our own, riding in tour buses, and driving our car with a park ranger as a tour guide. But the experience was much more than tours. Gettysburg is quite accessible. You can go just about anywhere in the town or on the battlefield and get a sense of history in true three dimension.
The Jenny Wade House seemed to make an impression on my kids, who put their fingers through the hole on the kitchen door created when a musket ball shot through, killing the only civilian casualty in the entire battle.
After my kids were exposed to American history in this way, even before they entered school, the subject of history in the classroom would be different for them than it was for me. Most of history for me during my school years was reading from a book and listening to a teacher. My kids learned that there was more to history than dates, proclamations and orators.
At Gettysburg, the one thing that my kids and I came to more fully understand was the impact a historical event can have on thousands and thousands of regular people, each with his or her own story, and then on the millions of people who somehow were later affected by an event the magnitude of Gettysburg.
One time, we visited the well-preserved room where President Lincoln stayed the night before delivering his famous Gettysburg Address. A moment of time frozen to today. We also stood where he stood when he gave that historic speech. On several occasions, we climbed hills that soldiers climbed, and peered from behind rocks where sharpshooters once stood.
Then there was the time I stood with my kids on a hill called Little Round Top, where some of the most dramatic action of the battle took place. We came across a group of West Point cadets and their instructors who made a special trip to this hill.
Little Round Top was at the far end of the Union line, and it could have been the weak point that lost the battle for the North. If the federal soldiers would have fallen there, our country’s history could have been much different. It all came down to one small regiment from Maine that was running out of ammunition and had no reasonable chance to think it would survive, let alone make a difference. They were desperate. Their colonel Joshua Chamberlain was a college professor before the war, not a military man. He was described as more of a romantic. But he was smart.
Out of options, he ordered his exhausted troops to fix bayonets and prepare for hand-to-hand combat in a counter-attack, one last ditch effort before they were to give their lives for their country.
What happened next is the stuff of legend, and it’s a case study still analyzed in America’s military academies. Colonel Chamberlain devised a way to charge downhill, giving the Confederates the impression they were being attacked by larger numbers from all sides. The Maine regiment held the hill and the battle was not lost.
My boys and I followed the West Pointers and listened in as they learned more about the battle. What a sight it must have been. Thirty cadets in military camouflage, two young boys with fake plastic swords and their camera-toting father.
Unrelated to the fighting, another interesting site we visited once was the Dwight D. Eisenhower house, the retirement home of the former World War II Allied Commander and President of the United States. The tour of the house is interesting because actors portray Secret Service personnel, who give the tour under the pretense that it’s the early 1960s, the height of the Cold War, and the former president is away from the house for a while.
You don’t have to be a Civil War buff to enjoy a visit to the town. It’s a slice of Americana.
So what does this have to do with PR?
I could say it’s the correlation between the military lessons of Gettysburg and what they could teach us in PR. Always look for the high ground. Concentrate your resources. Never assume you know what’s happening on the other side. Always know where the opposition is located. But you don’t need to see Gettysburg to understand these things.
Rather, the appeal to me is much more basic. The first days of July In 2013, Gettysburg will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. Almost fittingly, its anniversary leads up to July 4th, the most important anniversary in our nation’s history.
Ever since I was in journalism school, I learned to appreciate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. You know, the one that protects freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
For me, a visit to Gettysburg is a chance to see and get a feel for a place where so many from the North and the South fought for their respective causes. Over 157,000 troops converged on that small town over those three days in 1863. Over 50,000 died.
In November of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his historic Gettysburg Address, further embossing Gettysburg into the nation’s consciousness.
When I visit Gettysburg it always reminds me of the sacrifice others have made for the freedoms I enjoy. It’s really nothing more than that. But for me, that is enough.