First in a series
Like so many towns in that corner of Pennsylvania it has at its heart a roundabout, a circular point where 10 roads converge.
It’s a hub of a wheel, albeit a small one, that connects a ring of greater, more important cities: Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington.
One can argue that roads made Gettysburg, bringing traffic and trade from all directions and being the reason for its beginning. What cannot be disputed, however, is how its crossroads forever changed a quiet market settlement, and a nation, for what they brought there 150 years ago.
What happened in Gettysburg should not have happened at all. It was the last place for a battle to be waged, ground of no military importance. In 1863 it was, as much of it is now, a gentle land of stone-and-timber barns, pastures, and orchards bordered by low blue hills. It was home to 2,400 residents and small businesses, and its two colleges taught classics and theology. It was not a center of industry, commerce or government. It merely lay in the middle of them.
But that summer it became the center of everything when by accident and opportunity, by arrogance and resolve, by a web of roads two armies of 160,000 men collided there. For three days Americans made war on other Americans and inflicted more than 51,000 casualties at a tiny intersection.
The Civil War will be examined, dissected and debated as long as graduate students seek to enter academia and Ph.Ds. work to justify their tenure, but Shelby Foote explained it simplest and best, for he had that rare blend of an historian’s understanding and a writer’s sensitivity. “It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.”
It was, he meant, the very center, the defining moment of America’s story. All that we were as a nation changed at that point. All that we have become, for good and for bad, came about from the direction we found in that terrible conflict.
With that said, if the Civil War was “the crossroads of our being,” then Gettysburg was at the center of that crossroads.
It was chronologically at the very midpoint of a war that had been going badly for the cause of union. It came about after two years of fighting, when the idea of union was strained and at risk of being forever broken. It was a struggle of desperation that, in its midst, had no perceivable conclusion. But when it was won, it marked the beginning of the war’s end and secured a unified, free nation.
Gettysburg is in every sense a crossroads, a point where direction changes in a passage to somewhere else. It is America’s most important crossroads and for that reason deserves to be revisited and understood.
In the next few days this series will revisit Gettysburg on its anniversary with writings that will coincide with what happened 150 years ago. It is not intended to be a conclusive history; one newspaper’s offering can’t possibly deliver what countless volumes have yet to tell in its entirety.
Rather, it will focus on selected critical moments and some extraordinary people who endured them: a girl of 15 who found herself tending the wounded and dying, untested men from Crawford County whose stand earned them a badge of respect, a bookish professor who became an unlikely hero, and a son from Jamestown who tried to capture in words what he had seen.
All of them were brought together by the crossroads at Gettysburg.