The Suburbanite
  • Civil War time capsule — Ghosts populate Gettysburg battlefield

  • Our belief that the Gettysburg encounter was merely a small campaign was shattered when we learned that the battle scene spread out fully 25 miles, with double lines of troops, shoulder to shoulder, the whole length.

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  • When Will Underwood of Kent State University Press approached me about the possibility of creating an original exhibition dealing with the American Civil War for The Canton Museum of Art, I was quite excited by his proposal.
    My own knowledge of that tragic conflict was limited to memories of vague lessons in school, a couple of movies such as “Glory” and “Gone With the Wind,” Ken Burns’ fabulous Civil War documentary series on PBS  and some old collections of period music in my CD collection.
    I really wanted to get personally involved in this project, not just by reading some books or watching a couple of films but also by somehow getting inside a time capsule and dialing back to 1861-65.
    Impossible? Not really. That time capsule was Gettysburg, Pa.
    My wife and I drove in the company of our good friends Sue and Dick Pierson of Cuyahoga Falls. Dick made all the arrangements for an overnight stay at the historic Dobbin House and Tavern in Gettysburg and for a licensed guide to show us all the sites. At 1:30 on the afternoon of March 22, we stood inside the beautiful new Civil War Museum and Visitors’ Center, where we met our guide, Howie Frankenfield.
    A tall, lanky, middle-aged guy with a stentorian voice — no doubt the result of many such encounters with tourists — Howie easily could have passed muster as a Union recruit, given the proper uniform. Hardly out the door and into the blustery air of the parking lot, he began his detailed explanation that lasted, almost without interruption, the full 21⁄2 hours of our tour.
    Howie drove and talked. We were hypnotized by his engrossing delivery, his wealth of information and his immediate response to all our questions.
    Our first impression of the Gettysburg battlefield was its remarkable state of preservation. Except for the monuments — there are now more than 1,400 — the vast sweep of the fields and hills are today pretty much as they were during the three-day campaign that took place July 1-3, 1863.
    The carnage of the dead, dying and wounded numbering in the thousands has long since been cleared away, but the cannons remain, and the zigzag split-rail fences, and — most palpable of all — the ghosts.
    Standing at the summit of Little Round Top and later scanning the landscape from Cemetery Ridge, I could vividly imagine Gen. George Pickett’s disastrous charge across the open ground, each one of his Confederate soldiers a casual target for the rifled gun barrels of the Union weapons.
    By squeezing my eyes shut, I could hear the roar of cannons and smell the sulfurous gunpowder, followed by the cries of the wounded and dying.
    Our belief that the Gettysburg encounter was merely a small campaign was shattered when we learned that the battle scene spread out fully 25 miles, with double lines of troops, shoulder to shoulder, the whole length.
    Page 2 of 2 - When the three-day encounter was over, deaths and casualties on the Union side numbered more than 23,000, and on the Confederate side, a little more than 28,000.
    We were surprised to see the number of monuments honoring Ohio battalions, emphasizing our state’s active participation in the war effort.
    I had some illusion of wanting to sample the kind of fare that Civil War soldiers ate on the field. It includes hardtack — even the modern product made for re-enactors obsessed with authenticity is a brittle, tasteless white cracker — cornmeal; beans flavored with a slice of salt pork; and goober peas, all desiccating foods that absorb body moisture. And the soldiers ate all this with little available water.
    Fortunately, dinner at the Dobbin Tavern was quality contemporary fare, after which we walked over to the cemetery where an audience of 15,000 citizens gathered on the morning of Nov. 19, 1863, to hear guest speaker Edward Everett’s eloquent two-hour speech, followed by President Lincoln’s memorable three-minute meditation.
    Each of us practiced aloud what we knew or could remember of the Gettysburg Address. Dick made it all the way through without hesitation.
    We stood in silence for a time on this holy ground, in the cold and foggy mist, lost in recollections 150 years old. We were here in our own era now, but for a few precious hours, we had revisited the past, and the cycle was now complete.
    It was time to go home and think about our current wars, and our own soldiers.
    M.J. Albacete is executive director of the Canton Museum of Art.

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