This is my fourth trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I was here last summer for the 150th anniversary, here the year before that for a conference, and prior to that, many moons ago, when I was in eighth grade and too stupid to realize that it might have been my only opportunity to visit this place. Lord knows, I doubt that many of the kids who were with me on that trip will ever come back — we were on The Eighth Grade Washington Trip, and most of us were too excited by the prospect of making out with girls and boys we had crushes on to pay attention to the fact that in both DC and Gettysburg we were experiencing something we wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to again. Gettysburg is a perfect place, though, in early Fall. I sat today on Seminary Ridge, where, per Wikipedia and assorted plaques nearby:
Robert E. Lee established his headquarters… just north of the Chambersburg pike. [It] also served as the Confederate line of battle for July 2 & 3 attacks against Union Army positions on Cemetery Ridge. On July 3, 500 men in George Pickett‘s division were killed/wounded on Seminary Ridge (including 88 lost in one regiment of Kemper’s Brigade) from the Federal artillery counterfire prior to Pickett’s Charge.The last hospital patient of the seminary’s Old Dorm left on September 16, 1863
I watched the sunset, and thought about where I would want to die. I wouldn’t mind that spot, but I’d want to do it shooting muskets at Confederates.
In the eulogy for my father, I mentioned that Abraham Lincoln had composed the Gettysburg Address over the course of a brief train ride. This turns out to not be true. There’s a house near the rotary/roundabout in the center of town with a weird statue of Lincoln and someone, I dunno maybe the sculptor (it’s weird), holding hands in front of it — and it’s this house, the David Wills House, where historians, or perhaps simply the Wills estate, believe Lincoln put his finishing touches on the Gettysburg Address. In my eulogy for my father, I had said something along the lines of how remarkable it was that Lincoln could just pull something like the Gettysburg Address out of his ass, all the more so since I was presently meditating — in my eulogy, and during the service — on the majesty of the Gettysburg Address when my father was two or three days dead. All I could think about on the morning of his funeral, in a dizzying hangover, was how inadequate my speech was compared to his. At least, I thought enough about it to include it in the ceremony.
Which is weird.
And which maybe has always haunted me. I think of my visits to Gettysburg now as something of a pilgrimage. I always go to the outskirts of the battlefield and wonder what would have happened if the Union had lost. Counter-factual history. The stuff that made me so despise Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.” What if the Lindbergh had been elected president, or the Confederacy had prevailed at Gettysburg or Antietam? WHAT THEN???
The truth is that Roth’s book was stupid, but I finished the damn thing because I like a thought experiment or two, and I spent some time this evening dwelling on Seminary Ridge and daydreaming in counter-factuals. What if Pickett’s Charge had been successful? (I grew up on a Pickett Street, albeit a northern one, so Pickett’s Charge has always just sounded alarm bells for me — which perhaps helps to explain my fascination with Gettysburg.) What if my father were still alive? I wonder if he’s ever been to Gettysburg. Wait, that’s still past tense. I wonder if he came here. Would he be proud of me? I haven’t fucked up too much yet. Would he and I finally be able to talk to one another like we always should have? We had that one conversation when I finally felt like we were friends, and then, and then… Would he forgive me? For not being able to do it again as he died. Because of Gettysburg, of course. And General George Pickett, and Robert E. Lee, and the horrible traitors of the Confederacy. May they burn in hell, as my father’s ghost ambles away somewhere nicer.