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More than just "dead people"

Published June 09. 2012 09:01AM

OK, picture this. It's 1959. Fifth grade. Mr. Howard Borger says, "Class, take out your history books."

I feel my brain begin to glaze over. All I can think of is, "Oh no. More dead people."

That's how I viewed history. Lots of dates of stuff that happened a billion years ago and names of lots of dead people I was going to have to memorize so I could get a passing grade.

I hated history.

My dad liked history and my parents tried to make history more meaningful. There was a trip to Washington, D.C. We visited Gettysburg. All I saw were lots of statues and monuments. All dedicated to a bunch of dead people.

Then something happened.

The year was 1976. Our country was celebrating its 200th birthday and so was my church. I was 25 years old and expecting my daughter. I was drawn into learning the amazing background of how my ancestors were responsible for the building of my church, which now had significant meaning because I was adding to that lineage. And as our whole country geared up to celebrate the founding of the United States of America, history became very much alive for me.

I've since had the privilege to visit Washington, D.C. again and a few years ago, I saw the The Alamo. Now those monuments and statues had more meaning as I viewed them in a different light.

I've been to Monticello in Virginia, the home of Thomas Jefferson, our third president. What an incredible man he was! Walking through his home, seeing his inventions, learning about his advanced thinking of farming for his time, he became real. His history brought him alive for me.

Sometimes I wondered if we placed too much importance on battles, marking where so many people lost their lives. Valley Forge. Little Big Horn. The Alamo. Gettysburg. It all seemed kind of morbid.

Harry and I attended a function in Gettysburg last weekend. We took some time to visit the site of the battlefield. I vaguely remembered it from a family visit in the early 60s. I only recall it being kind of boring as we stopped at different monuments and my mom making me stand with my dad, baby sister and grandparents in front of these cold stone markers of something I couldn't even comprehend.

Last Saturday afternoon we wandered across a beautiful quiet hillside.

Cannons aim across a lush green valley. Statues of mounted generals grace the skyline. One giant oak tree stands as a lone sentinel. I read the words inscribed upon the granite stones that records a horrific event in July, 1863, 149 years ago.

The American Civil War began April 12, 1861 when Confederate forces attacked the U.S. military installation at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It became a war between the States when 11 southern slave states seceded from the United States. After four years, the war ended April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

In 1863, Confederate general Robert E. Lee's northward advance ended in defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, some call the turning point of the war.

The Union suffered 3,155 soldiers killed, 14,531 wounded and 5,369 captured or missing. The Confederate casualties were 4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded and 5,830 captured or missing. Over 3,000 horses died.

As I sat under that oak tree, sheltered from the warm sun, I heard echoes from the past of cannons exploding, gun shots ringing in the valley. My mind's eye pictured fallen soldiers, lying dead, as wounded men cried out in pain.

It was very sobering.

We toured the sites of the second and third days of battle. We climbed the tower that overlooked Devil's Den, where Confederate snipers picked off Union soldiers trying to advance to Little Round Top and the Wheatfield.

A tour guide was telling the story of the conflicts that took place there. He was a fabulous storyteller and he brought to life the likes of Colonel Patrick O'Rorke catching up his 140th New York regimental colors, mounting a rock to urge on his men, was then struck in the neck and fell dead, said to be one of the most striking and dramatic episodes of the battle.

We learned about the only civilian killed on the first day of battle. Mary Virginia (Jennie) Wade was only 20 years old, kneading dough for bread when a Minie ball came through the kitchen door, hit her, piercing her shoulder blade and going through her heart. More than 150 bullets hit her sister's house that day.

There are hundreds of individual stories like this that bring home the reality of what took place there.

President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg four months later and on Nov. 19, 1863, he delivered the famous Gettysburg Address at the Soldiers National Cemetery. We all remember the opening lines of "Four score and seven years ago" but it's what he said following that helps me understand why we build monuments, statues and markers to those who have fallen.

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before usthat from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotionthat we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vainthat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedomand that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

History is more than dates and dead people. History helps us appreciate life, and to remember.

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