I was asked if there has been anything that has surprised me about this adventure in Gettysburg. I tried to get mentally prepared before the residency, so I didn’t think I’d have a lot of surprises. However, I’ll tell you what…nothing could have prepared me for how this place gets to you, especially when you’re experiencing total immersion like I’ve been lucky enough to.
I visited Gettysburg as a kid, but I did the sad math on that and realized the last time I was here, my 8th grade class trip, was 18 years ago. I remember feeling moved by this place then, but at the same time, the Civil War felt like mythology to me because everyone in the stories seemed like a bunch of old guys. Well, experiencing this place as an adult is a whole different animal…Jeb Stuart was actually younger than me at the battle of Gettysburg, and Chamberlain was barely older than me. Most of the commanding generals were in their 30s and 40s and most of the subordinate officers were much younger. It absolutely changes your perspective when the people involved are in your age range. So that has surprised me.
Also, there have been moments when the gravity of this place has affected me much more than I would have predicted. I have not had any particularly paranormal experiences but there is a definite sense of weight here. It’s like the thousands of souls who perished here left a psychic imprint on the land, and you feel the heaviness of loss and sacrifice.
I also realized that I think I might use my love of knowing facts as a coping mechanism so that my heart doesn’t have to absorb things that are too sad. The stories about what soldiers went through, the courage, bravery, and horror, are so insane and unimaginable that they still seem like mythology and I think my brain treats them like “stories” so that my heart doesn’t short circuit. It is hard to acknowledge that these terrible things happened TO ACTUAL PEOPLE. It gets to you. I have definitely struggled with the gravity and heaviness of being forced to think about the things that happened to PEOPLE. However, until recently, I hadn’t come across anything that I couldn’t pull myself up from. Then I went to the Seminary Museum.
First, the Seminary Museum is great. If you come to Gettysburg, you should go…however, maybe let me warn you that it has been the one thing to make me tap out from sadness. A little history…the Lutheran Theological Seminary sits on Seminary Ridge and was very important in the fighting on day one of the battle of Gettysburg. It’s a large red brick building and the cupola on the top of the building was used as a watch tower by both the Union and Confederate armies. As the armies retreated toward Culp’s Hill, wounded men were left everywhere in the surrounding area. The Seminary filled with 600 wounded and dying men and served as a hospital for the months after the war.
So, a few of the floors of the museum have pretty realistic recreations of what field hospital rooms would have looked like, complete with floors covered in blood, bonesaw wielding surgeons, and mannequins that looked like wounded and dying soldiers. Just having the mannequins there took it to a level of realism that I had a hard time handling. Not to mention, the Civil War was really the first time there was battlefield photography and there were some pretty graphic images on display of deceased and severly wounded soldiers. Again, it drove home the fact that…this happened to ACTUAL PEOPLE. It was too much for me. I walked around with big, fat crocodile tears and a quivering lip until I finally tapped out because I couldn’t handle anymore.
But I’m glad this experience has continually made me hit my sadness threshold. I find myself getting so jaded with politics and propaganda that I worry about becoming calloused. I don’t want to be like that. There’s a Jewel song where the chorus goes, “I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way.” Well, that’s how I feel. I feel like this experience has cracked my heart open, but in a good way. Because if I walk into to a room full of bandaged up mannequins and start crying, that means I still love people and that the sight of suffering hurts me. I don’t want people to suffer, even people who’ve already been gone for 150 years. There is value in being forced to look at the ugliness of our past too. There is value in being made to feel sad and being made to acknowledge the horrendous suffering that we inflicted upon ourselves as a nation. We should all take a good hard look at our nations’s past, not just look at it, but let ourselves really acknowledge and feel the sad parts. I think that would help us move forward more mindfully. If we really take the time to think about what drove our country to the point of wounded soldiers lying in church pews, we might make more careful decisions now.