Mesa Musings: Delving in to Gettysburg never gets boring

I spent a scorching day last week at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

The thermometer hovered near 100 degrees. The climate was so humid that it seemed like a large shaggy dog had pinned me to the ground and was breathing directly into my face.

When the Union and Confederate armies crashed into one another just outside Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, precipitating the bloodiest battle in American history, the weather wasn't so uncompromising.

Heat or no heat, our visit was awe-inspiring. I made the trip with my grandson, who celebrated his 12th birthday at the park, and my son-in-law.

The battlefield is observing the Civil War's sesquicentennial — 150th anniversary. Gettysburg will celebrate its own sesquicentennial in July 2013.

The battle is frequently described as the war's turning point. It recorded the greatest number of casualties of any battle in the war: about 51,000 men from both armies.

Gettysburg is America's largest battlefield shrine, featuring 1,300 monuments, 41 miles of scenic lanes and boulevards, and one of the largest collections of outdoor sculptures.

The best way to gain a true sense of the three-day battle is to walk as much ground as possible. Be warned, however. It's a huge field, at 522 acres.

This was my fifth visit.

Each time I go to Gettysburg, I see people I know. Bronze visages of Gens. Robert E. Lee, George Meade, James Longstreet and many others greet visitors from locations all over the park.

One year, however, I did unexpectedly run into a person I knew — a colleague from Orange Coast College.

I was in the park's museum, admiring Confederate cannon balls. So absorbed was I in surveying that I didn't notice the couple standing beside me.

I happened to overhear the woman comment to her husband about canister shells filled with lethal grapeshot and shrapnel. I recognized the voice. She and her husband, both Civil War re-enactors, were making their almost annual pilgrimage to Pennsylvania.

During my first trip to the park in 1993, I took the two-hour battlefield bus tour. I was cramming the visit into a short Washington, D.C., stay — about two hours away. I don't recommend that.

The tour provided a basic orientation because I knew virtually nothing about the battle prior to the visit. Over the next 18 years I read more than 30 books about the Civil War, including several on Gettysburg alone.

In 2005, I hired a licensed battlefield guide for a personal two-hour tour of the park. By then, I was fairly savvy about the events of the battle and was looking for context.

Last week, I bought a CD and did my own auto tour of the battlefield. The tour takes about three hours, but you can extend it by getting out along the way and exploring on your own. We spent four hours in the museum and visitor center prior to the tour, and eight hours on the battlefield. It was a deeply satisfying experience.

I never tire of tramping the nearly 1-mile undulating ground of Pickett's Charge; of surveying the battlefield from atop Little Round Top, where so many Texans, Alabamans, New Yorkers and Mainers fell; and of walking somberly through the Soldiers' National Cemetery, the setting for President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

During this visit I saw for the first time the magnificent new 139,000-square-foot Museum & Visitor Center, built in 2008. It includes a rotunda gallery, museum gallery, theater experience, interactive stations, and museum store. It also houses the breathtaking 377-foot-long Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted in 1884 by French artist Paul Philippoteaux.

Four months after the 1863 battle, Lincoln went by train to the battlefield and dedicated the cemetery with his now-famous address.

Lincoln left Gettysburg convinced that he'd disappointed the crowd with his brief remarks. Little did he know that his rhetoric would dramatically reverberate through human history.

Gettysburg moves you in so many ways!

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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