Gettysburg Memories: Field Trip

photo courtesy of Bob Gavazzi
photo courtesy of Bob Gavazzi

I’m in third grade. Hershey Elementary School. We all pile onto a row of big yellow school buses that rumble down Route 322 to I-83 to Route 15, which goes southwest from Camp Hill to Gettysburg. This is my introduction to the Civil War.

In a photo that survives from the trip, twelve of us cluster around a cannon with our teacher, Mr. Leader. He wears a brown faux-leather leisure suit jacket, and the wide collar of his shirt is out and flattened down against the jacket’s lapels. He’s got some sideburns going on and a thin, seventies moustache, and although he wears darkly tanned sunglass lenses, the shape of his smile suggests he’s squinting. We thought he was the coolest teacher ever.

I might be one of the kids sitting on the cannon, the kid in the black hat farthest out on the end of the muzzle. I can’t quite tell, though, looking at the picture, because that kid is mostly obscured by a classmate, Bob, whose grown-up self sent the photo to me some thirty-three years after it had been taken. “My mom was one of the chaperones, which is why I have the evidence,” Bob told me. He suggests I might be a kid next to the cannon wearing a white hat, and indeed, I might be. I can’t tell.

There’s not enough background for me to know where the photo was taken, so it could’ve been anywhere. Gettysburg has 371 cannons scattered across its battlefield. I wonder, though, if the photo was taken up at the north end of the field, near Oak Hill and the Eternal Light Memorial. No good guys or bad guys, the memorial says—just blue and gray. No white hats or black hats at all.

I became enthralled on that trip with Devil’s Den, a mammoth tumble of house-sized boulders half-swallowed by, half-jutting out from the earth. Confederate sharpshooters hunkered down there and shot at Union officers across the Valley of Death. No wonder the Devil lived there. I wouldn’t know until decades later that the devil was really a big ol’ black snake reported to live in the rocks sometime back in “the olden days,” and locals had to keep an eye out for it when they visited this part of the battlefield. As a third grader, the thought that a big ol’ black snake might’ve lived in these rocks didn’t even occur to me as my classmates and I crawled through the maze of tunnels under the mammoth stones. This was a playground, not a habitat—and certainly not a battlefield.

The highlight of the trip was our visit to the wax museum. I would visit again thirty years later and the exhibits looked much the same. I wondered how they kept those life-sized wax dioramas dusted. Maybe they didn’t. I couldn’t tell. The history itself looked dusty.

WaxMuseumBee-smI first met Stonewall Jackson at that museum. One of the displays showed the Battle of First Bull Run. A wax figure dressed in a gray coat stood next to a fieldstone wall that had a chunk blown out of it. Lots of fake trees crowded in on all sides of the display. I naturally assumed this officer was the “Stonewall” Jackson the placard mentioned because, after all, he stood next to a stone wall. But he was pointing to the back wall of the diorama, to a painted scene that depicted another man on horseback leading his men in battle. That, as it turned out, was Stonewall Jackson. “Back Wall Jackson” might’ve been more appropriate. The wax guy in the foreground was Bernard Bee, I guess, the man who gave Jackson his nickname: “There stands Jackson on the back wall! Let us resolve to die here and we shall get waxy!”

It doesn’t matter. The legend of Stonewall impressed itself on me.

That afternoon, back at school, the teachers let us loose on the playground to kill the last twenty minutes before dismissal. We decided to kill each other, lining up as blue or gray soldiers on opposite sides of our newfound battlefield. We charged each other, some kids wearing kepis they’d bought at the wax museum’s gift shop. I’d bought a Confederate flag, not having enough money for a kepi. I waved it as I charged. Regardless of how cool the design of my flag was, though, I aligned myself with the blue troops because I lived in the north.

Sammy Shipman, who would die a few years later from leukemia, stood in the middle of the playground. He’d declared himself to be Stonewall Jackson. Sammy was big compared to the rest of us—so big he could’ve been “Brick-Shithouse” Jackson. We tormented him for being so big—something I’d feel guilty about after he died—but today it worked to his advantage. We swarmed him. He pitched us off, one by one, like fleas, like gnats, like ragdoll Union soldiers. I don’t remember any other Confederates, although there had to be some.

Nor do I remember any teachers yelling at us to stop our crazy-mad roughhousing, although I can’t imagine anyone who was watching would’ve let such violence continue—at least the violence as I remember it. We swept across the playground in a grand charge more like wild cavalrymen than the deliberate marching-in-ranks advance of General George Pickett’s men, although we were recreating Pickett’s Charge. Stonewall Jackson might not have been there for Pickett’s Charge, but Sammy Shipman was, and we charged him. It didn’t matter that we were blue, that he was gray, that Stonewall wasn’t at Gettysburg. Stonewall had been at the wax museum, and that was enough. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have money for a kepi; I had money for a flag. Running across the playground, recreating Pickett’s Charge all wrong, I was the color bearer. I had no way of knowing then what an honor that was, or how I would be the one most likely to die.

24 Responses to Gettysburg Memories: Field Trip

  1. Really great story. Thanks for it. So this was your introduction. Were you hooked on the Civil War from then on, or later?

      1. I read that May story right after you linked me to it Chris but never responded. It really was quite good. That is great that you and your daughter share such an interest in such a fundamentally important part of our national and cultural history. I’m a Bonaventure grad (way back in 1967). Hopefully in some way, if it’s your choice, you could impart some of your vast knowledge to the students there. This is very important work you do on the site. Thanks very much for it.

  2. I think we all have one of these in our background. Mine is pretty sketchy, but the upper grades at Putnam Heights Elementary School in Oklahoma City got to re-enact the Oklahoma Land Run. Red wagons became small Conestogas, and the girls got to wear sunbonnets. The boys could be cowboys, complete with a pair of little kid six-shooters belted to their boyish waists. It was heaven. I could hardly wait.

    Then my family moved to California, before I was old enough to ever participate. So–I grew up to be a re-enactor of whatever was going on, including Hallowe’en. And here I am.

  3. A great article!
    My very first tour of Gettysburg Battlefield was just three years ago. It was led by a tour guide from our local historical society. Although he was interesting, the Battlefield itself gave off a weird sort of feeling, a special sense of reference. Even if you did not know there was a battle on this place, there was a feeling that something of significance had happened there.

  4. I’m from Ephrata PA. and lived in York when I went to art school there in the 70s. My dear departed friend Dick Clayman who was president of the Gettysburg Civil War Round Table took my to the battlefield so many times in his car the TR6 and lectured me constantly on the Civil War among other important things, but the Civil War was his favorite subject. I remember a lot of his stories. He did historical research too. Once he found a story about a Yankee soldier who got killed in VA. The Yankee was from Seven Valleys PA. There was a blockade on the James River and it took 3 months for them to get his body home. When they finally got to bury the guy they had to do it fast early in the morning because the Confederates were marching into York County. Dick found the church records and the grave and put a flag on it.
    Thanks for the great story. It’s a sentimental journey for me.

  5. I went to Gettysburg many years ago. I believe it was around 1970. There was a feeling of awe that so many had died there. I flew over the battlefield. I especially remember Picket’s charge. It was a beautiful place but there was an strange feel to a area that cost so many people their lives so long ago. I also visited Andersonville in the south. Again the same feeling. Maybe it is just me because I really do not believe in ghosts but those places reeked of spirits.

  6. This blog is so refreshing. It is interesting to me to read others first tours to Gettysburg, This sounds so much like my experience as well. I also felt that I had no way of knowing then what an honor that was, or how I would be the one most likely to die. Interesting isn’t it?

  7. I am a Southerner, with family roots going back 170 years in New Orleans and Southern Mississippi. My Dad, may he rest in peace, was a War historian. I grew up calling it the War of Northern Aggression, not the Civil War. There wasn’t anything civil about it. (rim shot) My friends wore Six Flags Over Texas teeshirts, ours had Stonewall Jackson. They went to the amusement park by Lake Pontchatrain, we visited Vicksburg.

    We said the Battle of First Manassas, not Bull Run. Sharpsburg instead of Antietam. Dad taught us the lead in, the during the aftermath of that War, of the great loss on both sides, of the sorrows, the sadly continuing division between the regions.

    I loved Gettysburg! I now have my father’s books, and I’m reading again what he would lecture us on in those lengthy car rides so long ago.

    PS We owned a dog that was, well, a dog. His name was Sherman. When questioned as to why we had chosen that particular name, Daddy said, with tongue in cheek: He wasn’t quite ugly enough to be called Grant.

  8. Thanks for the memories, man! I’ve always been fascinated with War memorials and museums. Gettysburg was one such visit I will cherish for the rest of my life.

  9. Thanks for sharing your own history. I am from Gettysburg and somehow never got overly into its history. Maybe I took my hometown for granted, but my dad did not. He wasn’t from Gburg, but he spent a lot of his free time walking all over the battlefield, which meant we did too. Great place to grow up.

  10. Nice story, Chris. I just visited Gettysburg for the first time this year. Like many of the readers here, I also felt a hushed sense of reverence when I walked onto the battlefields. It felt more like a cemetery than a public landmark. I will definitely visit it again.

  11. I certainly remember those field trips. Some of them made such an impression. We may not have fully understood the history or the value of knowing the history but when you revisit it is time to use a different lens. Thanks for the post.

  12. I enjoyed the read, it brought back fond memories – thank you. My father and I made the trip to Gettysburg and Devil’s Den was the part that stayed with me the most. It was incredible to stand there and feel the history pulsing beneath your feet, casting your mind back to those times and creating a vision of that scene.

  13. I don’t know you, but somehow it’s just really nice to hear that you had fun that day, and Sammy Shipman, too. Thanks for sharing your memories. 🙂

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