A Walk Around the Great Granddaddy of America’s Battlefields

Most Civil War historians in the Park Service feel a little battlefield envy when it comes to Gettysburg. It’s the great Granddaddy of All Battlefields in North America, marked and monumented with enough granite, marble, and bronze to sink Rhode Island into the sea. Pennsylvania, being bigger and more landlocked, isn’t in such danger. In fact, Gettysburg’s location in the Keystone State, so relatively close to the major metropolitan areas of the east coast, ensured its place as Hallowed Ground—not because it represented the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy” but because it was certain to attract tourists.

(The notion of the “High Water Mark” just a widely successful PR ploy basically engineered by one man in an attempt to attract those tourists and reinforce his own version of the battle history).

In Spotsylvania, where we get a sliver of the visitation Gettysburg does, we put an advantageous spin on the discrepancy: note how pristine and undisturbed our battlefield is compared to Gettysburg. In Petersburg, south of the James River, some of the rangers feel like the forgotten red-headed stepchildren compared to Gettysburg. In the Western Theater, at Chickamauga-Chattanooga, I know a ranger who refuses to even mention Gettysburg by name.

If people have been to only one battlefield, it’s usually Gettysburg. For me, it was my first, and for years most frequented, battlefield. As an elementary school student growing up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, I boarded a big yellow school bus every year for the obligatory field trip to the battlefield. It was about an hour drive or so. Once there, I clambered through the rocks at Devil’s Den, wandered through the buckshot of monuments at the “High Water Mark,” and swooned with the sheer awesomeness of the nearby wax museum. It wasn’t until I grew up a bit that I appreciated the magnitude of what the place really meant.

“More than any other place in the United States, this place is indeed Hallowed Ground,” says historian James McPherson, best known for his Pulitzer-winning Battle Cry of Freedom. He’s also author of Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg.

“I have toured the battlefield by car, by bus, on a bicycle, and on foot,” McPherson says, explaining that he’s given so many tours there he’s lost count. Hallowed Ground is his attempt to take readers along on one of those tours. “Join me for a walk on this hallowed ground,” he says.

I intentionally read this book following Confederates in the Attic as a way to bring the two books into conversation with each other. In Confederates, author Tony Horwitz explores the landscape of Civil War writ large with an immersive year-long field trip that takes him all across the South. In contrast, McPherson gives readers a much more intimate experience over a much smaller landscape.

Like Horwitz, McPherson is a character in his own story, but beyond that, McPherson takes a vastly different approach. As with Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us, Hallowed Ground represents an “outer limit” of creative nonfiction. This is the boundaryland, where the first-person memoir fades back into straight nonfiction because the first-person is a nearly negligible factor.

McPherson shares some of his personal experiences on the battlefield, such as a stop by some of his students from Princeton near the monument of the Twentieth Maine on the edge of Little Round Top. The regiment had executed a maneuver that arguably saved the Union left flank. The incident was made famous for modern buffs by Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Killer Angels and by Ken Burns’ The Civil War, turning the regiment’s commander, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, into the subject of a veritable one-man cottage industry. One of McPherson’s students had written her thesis about Chamberlain.

“As we came to the place where the Twentieth Maine fought, she could no longer hold back the tears. Nor could the rest of us,” McPherson shares. “Although I have experienced other powerful emotions while walking other Civil War battlefields, none has ever matched that April day in 1987. The world has little noted what I said there, but it can never forget what they did there.”

That’s about as personal as he gets—which is to say, not very. He’s not using the first-person perspective to reveal anything about himself. It’s just a convenient conceit for sharing stories.

He makes the reader complicit by using the first-person plural “we” at times, such as when he literally gives directions for getting from one place to another. For instance, when bringing readers to Pickett’s Charge, the culminating action of the battle’s third day, McPherson writes: “Our next stop is the jump-off point for that attack. To get there from East Cavalry field, we return to town on the Hanover Road (State Route 116) and continue west through downtown Gettysburg on Middle Street, which becomes the Fairfield Road….”

He’s equally unpoetic when he urges visitors to look around at carious spots. “A stroll around this ‘High Water Mark of the Confederacy’ is well worth the time it takes to read the interpretive markers and absorb the information on the three dozen regimental monuments and the dozen or more tablets originally placed by the War Department,” he writes.

He talks about the Park Services then-plans for landscape restoration, chopping down some trees to open view sheds so that the battlefield looks like it did in 1863 when the armies fought there. The plan was to make it easier to read the ground and experience the landscape the way soldiers did. Most of that work has been carried out since the book’s publication in 2003. Such references, however, immediately date the book, making a read-through now obsolete.

That’s what makes Hallowed Ground so disappointing to me. It often feels like McPherson just phoned it in, like he needed a few bucks so he cranked out a quick book on Gettysburg. Slap “Gettysburg” on something and people will snatch it up (says the guy who slaps “Stonewall” on things and has people snatch them up…).

McPherson plays to the general audienceship, too. He makes sure to tell as many quaint war stories as he can, such as that of Sallie the War Dog, a regimental mascot who appears in bronze, lying at the feet of her regiment’s monument. He talks about Chamberlain. He talks about Amos Humiston, a dead soldier who lay unidentified until except for a photo of his three kids clutched in his hand, eventually spotted by his wife months later when it was reproduced in a newspaper article. (Amos came from Portville, N.Y., a town literally seven miles down the road from my house, so I feel like we’re on a first-name basis. I’m a fan of the story.)

McPherson debunks myths of Gettysburg and sometimes even explains why he’ll continue to perpetuate a myth supposedly debunked by other historians. It’s the kind of stuff a general reader would enjoy–one who maybe has that “I visited there once” level of knowledge of the battle.

I don’t get much about McPherson himself, but I do get a lot about the battle. His battle narratives are easily the strongest part of the book. He “walks” visitors place to place, and then uses what he sees and where he stops as his springboard into the history. Such narrative is always readable and excellent.

But overall, the book was clinical and not especially thought-provoking. I didn’t get to muse over much. I sensed McPherson’s respect for the place, but I didn’t get any sense of awe about it. For a guy who’s toured it so often, I expected to feel a little more love about the place. I expected it to feel hallowed.

It’s a short book, so a read-through isn’t going to be a waste of time, especially for people who like anything Gettysburg-related (slap that name on it!). It’s probably the best short account of the battle available. But Hallowed Ground still feels like a far battle cry from McPherson’s best work.


Cross-posted at Scholars & Rogues.

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