The Best of 2011 (James Broomall)

Our authors continue to share their favorite Civil War-related memories of 2011. Here’s James Broomall:

Going to an old familiar place can reawaken a quieted passion. Such was the case in July when I visited Gettysburg. Since childhood, I had visited the famed town dozens of times, though, as of that summer, I hadn’t been in over a decade and, by then, other nineteenth-century interests had long overshadowed it. A friend proposed that we meet there before I moved to Florida later that month—an intriguing suggestion. The first day was incredibly hot and humid (record highs in many parts of the country), and we spent most of our time shopping the town or in the new Visitors’ Center soaking up the air conditioning—a good but not memorable day. On the second day, though, in late afternoon, the skies darkened and the winds picked up breaking the heat. We were preparing to leave town when I begged my friend to walk the Pickett-Pettigrew assault with me. Fearing the weather and the impending rain (by now the clouds were ominous and thunder could be heard off in the mountains) he suggested that I meet him on the other side where he’d be waiting with the car. I agreed and set off.

By this time I was finishing up my dissertation having spent the better part of the past three years reading the letters and diaries of Nineteenth-century white Southerners, many of who had fought, and in some cases died, on the very fields I was now walking. It was a incredible feeling to have their voices whirling through my head as I plodded forward toward that famed copse of trees (readers will recall William Faulkner’s observation that every southern boy wants to be there on the fields just before two o’clock on that infamous July day). Thinking about the Confederates’ ineffectual artillery barrage prefacing the assault and the thin, steady blue line that awaited them, I pondered again and again that question which so plagues civil war historians—just why they fought and how they continued. I started over the Emmitsburg Road, now more quickly as the dark clouds were chasing me and lighting flashed off in the distance. I reached the stonewall lost in thoughts, exhilarated by the stormy weather, and entirely moved by the experience. I cannot claim to have found any answers on the field that day, though my dormant passion for Gettysburg, its fields, its monuments, and the difficult questions it provokes, was certainly reawakened.

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