GETTYSBURG – Everything about this town whispers to visitors, "Here lies the soul of America’s story."
It is found in the peach orchards and rolling wheat fields where gunfire, explosions and wails of the dying have been replaced by stone sentinels of Confederate and Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War’s largest, deadliest battle.
And it is found in the center of town, too, a small village at the time of the battle that has survived, stumbled and ultimately thrived on pure Americana tradition and the remembrance of the dead — part kitsch, part preservation, and lots of heart.
Come July, historians, tourists, politicians and re-enactors will mark the 150th anniversary of the battle that began with a shot fired at Confederate troops as they crossed Marsh Creek, two miles west of town on present-day U.S. Route 30. Lt. Marcellus Jones, of the Union’s 8th Illinois Cavalry Regiment, was the man who pulled the trigger on the morning of July 1, 1863.
Americans are tethered to Gettysburg by an ancestor who fought on the battlefield, a hometown regiment that fought here, or a historical appreciation for a place that reshaped the war and, ultimately, everyone in this country, according to Michael Krauss, curator at Pittsburgh’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum.
They visit from across the country. In every season of the year, license plates from Alaska, South Dakota and New Mexico mingle with those from nearby Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. Folks walk along Baltimore Street in full regimental regalia — seven modern-day Confederates silently nodding to three men in Union blue passing on the brick sidewalk.
A parade of families, couples and loners moves in and out of mom-and-pop stores, buying Lincoln hats, rebel flags or triple-scoop ice cream cones, before stopping to read the historical marker outside a building where resident Jennie Wade lost her life during the three-day battle.
In the evenings, lantern-carrying ghost-tour guides lead seemingly endless processions of spirit-hunters and thrill-seekers — a relatively recent phenomenon that has produced more commerce for some business owners than it has sightings of the dead.
In this overly articulated and exceedingly archived world of trivial moments captured on social-media websites, Gettysburg’s history and kitsch remain cherished here. They always have been, even before the battle’s cannon barrels had cooled.
"Because it was the first and only major battle fought above the Mason-Dixon Line, it was immediately preserved by the curious in the North, who had no access to the South where all of the other battles were fought," explained Krauss, one of the leading authorities on Civil War military history.
"Along with that preservation came our entrepreneurial spirit. Maps of the battles, spent bullets and clothing, any relic at all, was being sold immediately."
Krauss believes it is the struggle that appeals to everyone’s emotions: "Every casualty is an American."
"Gettysburg has always fascinated me," said Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and author of a historical novel about the battle. "It is the high-water mark of Southern hopes and the emotional turning point of Union courage."
The courage and blood of those who died here truly made Gettysburg hallowed ground for freedom, Gingrich said.
On July 1, 1913, Confederate veteran A.C. Smith of the 56th Virginia walked along Cemetery Ridge where he was shot — and, by his own admission, "would have died" — and came face-to-face with Union veteran Albert Hamilton of the 72nd Pennsylvania, the man who saved Smith’s life.
"By God … let me look at you," said the old Confederate, grasping Hamilton’s shoulders.
Both men were attending the first reunion of the Blue and Gray, 50 years after the fighting.
While other fields of Civil War battle have become Wal-Marts and shopping centers, Gettysburg stands as she was. It was the turning point of that terrible war, and it is where Abraham Lincoln gave his speech that defined us as a people.
As our country becomes more diluted by societal and cultural influences, Gettysburg holds onto its value. It remains embedded in our national memory. Perhaps that is so because it is much easier to understand the whole war in one word — Gettysburg.
More likely it is because, like America itself, this is a place worthy of being preserved.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]