Chasing Smallwood .48. Gettysburg

[A book with four interlocking themes:

  • how to communicate with the dead;
  • the life of a 19th-century American;
  • the massive task facing us today, and
  • the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]

[Tuesday April 25, 2006]

On Monday, I took it into my head to go to Gettysburg.

I can see prompting when it’s right in front of me. Why else would I all of a sudden decide to see Gettysburg? Nowhere else would do, either. Walt suggested I see Missionary Ridge but it is too far and I’m not all that interested. (His suggestion probably prompted the trip, come to think of it.)

Gettysburg. Scene of the magical healing. Or – was it? There’s the tension in the trip, I guess.

(3:40 p.m.) Cemetery Ridge, right where the charge was repulsed. Joseph, anything to say?

Despite yourself you felt the emotion at the monument for the New Jersey regiment. Doesn’t that tell you something?

I don’t know what to trust.

They were coming across what looked like a flat field and it was like doom itself was marching on us. The cannon were tearing holes in ’em, but the holes filled just like the ocean when you drop something in it, and they kept on coming. You try keeping that up for 10 minutes, 15, half an hour, an hour nearly, by the time they were heading back. It’s hard on the nerves, giving or receiving, advancing or waiting.

7:25 a.m. Wednesday April 26, 2006

Wheezing a little this morning – just as I was wheezing, very slightly, on Cemetery Ridge. Just enough for me to note for later significance – for it is tied in to Joseph’s experience, I think.

 All right, Joseph, or guys – I’ll recapitulate what I did and then I’ll be wanting some commentary.

Got up early, left 7:30 a.m., arrived Gettysburg via the Chambersburg Road. Stopped at the monument to Buford and Reynolds. Stopped at Lee’s first day headquarters, had an nice long chat with a woman there. Told her why I was up there. Talked about ghosts, spirits. Had lunch in town, sitting near a round table full of cops – much like the men in uniform were, it occurs to me now. Went to Visitor’s Center, poked around, waiting for the ranger tour of the cemetery. Found the flag of the 19th Virginia infantry on the wall – wasn’t particularly looking at much but came to that. [The flag, captured from men who had participated in Pickett’s charge, was of a unit that had been formed from Albemarle, Nelson and Amherst Counties.] Poked through bookstore, found nothing that appealed to me that day. Took the tour, tried to have Mr. Lincoln listen in. Friendly talk (to my surprise! thinking of my long hair) with a couple from Montana and another man. Walked over to the ridge at the point where Pickett’s charge had come to. Wandered along the line for a while. Finally got in my car, drove to Little Round Top and poked around there. At five got into my car, suddenly knew I was finished, drove home.

 All right, that’s the bare bones of it. I could say more but I’m more interested in your opinion. Oh, I should add, in the 40-some photos I took was one of the 17th New Jersey volunteers monument, which is the only way I remember the number.

Yep, and now you’ve had a taste of combat, haven’t you? It is just as you told Rita, the being there at a place lets you hook in to something in a way that is more powerful than hooking in by imagination. So when you saw Salisbury Cathedral you could see with your eyes what Bertram had seen – enough so that you knew the changes since his day by what didn’t seem to fit.

When you were at The Angle, where the guns fired double canister at 10 yards range – you didn’t feel anything you thought you might feel. You didn’t see ghosts or get strong feelings – you got them talking to the woman in the gift shop, you’ll remember, as it all surfaced for a second. You didn’t get all dreamy, trying to imagine what it must have looked like, felt like, sounded like. That hasn’t struck you till I mention it – you didn’t do any of those things. What did you do? You “poked around” as you say, walking around by yourself, away from people, especially away from tour guides. You walked the line – and though you were reading monuments inscriptions and were looking out to the west across that long field what do you suppose I was doing that long afternoon? I walked the line, settling the boys as best I could.

Because you weren’t experiencing anything theatrical, because you weren’t straining to experience anything, you sort of got the real thing, but at first you didn’t notice it. And that real thing is almost too much and too little to get into words.

“Terror” ain’t the right word. “Panic” ain’t right. “Desperation” is close. “Do or die” would sort of get it, if it didn’t sound comic to your ears. Being right up against it, and no way out of it, is closer to it. Here they were, thousands of men coming across the field to kill you, and the only thing that will stop them is you got to kill them first. And we ain’t ever beat Bobby Lee! Not once. And Chancellorsville just two months earlier. The only thing we had in our favor was this time they were coming up and we had the ground. But God almighty, here came all the men in the world at us, after we’d just barely hung on yesterday and after we’d got thrown out of Gettysburg the day before. God, here they were coming at us, and wouldn’t anything ever stop Lee from doing whatever he wanted? Weren’t we ever going to win? It was like fighting fate.

I told you on the field, but you were too agitated for me to say any more – you didn’t even realize why, maybe you thought it was just traveling or other people around but you couldn’t get your energy down. We had to stand there and watch ’em coming, and we was firing and firing the cannon into their ranks and it was just like great effect followed by no effect. Whole bunches would go down, and the next minute it was like nothing had happened – the sea had flowed in over the hole again. And they kept coming and we kept holding and they didn’t break and we didn’t break and there was no middle ground left, it was kill or be killed, win or lose, conquer or be conquered. This is not a matter of speeches or noble intent, either. It is the way it is. You are in one army; he is in the other. You got nothing against him personally nor him you, but your only chance out of it is to kill enough of them that they quit coming.

Of course it ain’t that simple either. That part is true, but it is also true that we were part of something bigger, and that’s why men would lay down their lives for it. People don’t talk much about this because they don’t quite see it; their telescope don’t extend that far. But in the middle of an army you are part of something bigger, something way beyond the individual human scale, and it’s just grand. It’s the most intoxicating thing. It’s for just a minute being what people are meant to be – part of something grand. The shame of it is that mostly we get that sense when we’re involved in killing people, and nobody ever said armies are often used for the right purpose even then, but that’s the secret of it right there – we were part of something grand; we were part of – of history, sort of. There is no way to say it that I know of. You try to put it into words, it drips away. But you felt it there. On the human level you were terrified and desperately passionately concerned that we not lose again – but even within that, half-unseen, maybe mostly unseen, I don’t know – was that exultation of being part of something way bigger than the small-scale human size.

That is maybe what Lee meant when he said it is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it. It ain’t that it is a big chess match using real people – though it does have that flavor to it too – but that it gives a human general the ability to play with God-like powers. I don’t mean the ability to kill other people, any tyrant has that. I mean, to connect to that sense of cooperating with the great tides that create human history. I can’t say it. Lincoln couldn’t say it, maybe nobody can. But you felt it, and how did you feel it? Just standing near a line of rocks looking west over a quiet little field to another little ridge, neither ridge as dramatic or high as you’d thought, and the field just a field. In the space between words, in that undramatic time, you got it. You got out of your own way, as your father would have said.

 It’s funny, Joseph, sitting here writing this I feel much more stirred up than I did then.

Well, you feel it more now because you are alone, and it’s quiet, and you’re talking to me – that is, you’re closer to your internal process.

 I feel, after writing your bit above, almost shaken, like I’d had a huge jolt of adrenaline.

Any time you feel that, it ought to tip you off that something real is happening.

2 thoughts on “Chasing Smallwood .48. Gettysburg

  1. “It’s for just a minute being what people are meant to be–part of something grand.” I do think we come to be used for something “grand,” something bigger than we are. I remember realizing that when I stood at the bedside of a young African American woman dying of AIDS alone in the middle of the night in a small, rural NM hospital. Maybe it does take the element of life and death, hanging in the balance, to feel that. Maybe not. Maybe it’s when the vast personal and impersonal forces align through us. That Smallwood is always so profound! He stirs my depths, arousing things down there that haven’t been touched. LoL. I could be in love with him.

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