by Eric McMahon, June 30, 2010
As I prepared last week for a tour of Civil War historic sites with forty history teachers from northwestern Minnesota, I looked at the itinerary and wondered if I would get anything out of touring battlefields.
Although I enjoy history, history buffs who get their thrills out of battles at the expense of all else make me nervous. Don’t they realize that war isn’t football? Don’t they see the bigger picture, the lives ruined, the families destroyed?
Our first stop at the Bull Run battlefield just west of Washington, D. C. confirmed my suspicions. Our guide was a wanna-be drill instructor who shouted at our tour group like we were fresh recruits.
“So, my question to you is, the little guy ballered, what would you have done in this situation if you were General McDowell?”
I nearly shouted, “I would have punted!” but I didn’t want to do 100 pushups.
Instead, nobody said a word. This was a bunch of rural Minnesotans. When threatened, we tend to stare blankly like Jersey cows, thus unnerving our foe.
After the clueless punk finished his blustering, our sullen brigade of Minnesotans trudged back to the bus without so much as a moo.
The next stop was Antietam. Here, things went better. The guide was a serious young woman who knew her stuff.
Yet, her obvious passion was not for the effect of the battle of Antietam on the Civil War but for the preservation of the battlefield in the present day.
After her earnest explanations of who owned this and who bought that and how this house was restored and how this one was not, I was still not convinced that visiting a battlefield was vital to understanding the impact of a particular battle.
Then we got lucky. For the tour of Gettysburg, our tour leader landed the ultimate guide: Professor James McPherson, author of /Battle Cry of Freedom,/ the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Civil War.
McPherson is a great historian. A professor at Princeton, he achieved the impossible.by writing a single-volume history of the war that is both respected by academics and read by the masses.
I anticipated a suave and intimidating Ivy League professor who thought he knew everything and wanted everybody to know it.
But when McPherson showed up, he was a no-nonsense home cookin’ sort who was born in Valley City, ND and raised near Albert Lea, MN.
I anticipated a man who knew the big picture of the Civil War but who might be impatient with details.
But it soon became apparent that there wasn’t a rock on the 6,000 acre Gettysburg battlefield that the distinguished professor couldn’t explain.
Under the tutelege of the great historian, the battlefield sprang to life. McPherson walked us through the three-day battle, dishing out frank assessments of each general’s strengths, quirks and weaknesses, justifying some of their decisions while criticizing others.
You could see the wheels of the great mind that whittled down the Civil War into one volume spin hard to solve the same problem during our visit: How could he reduce the battle of Gettysburg to a seven-hour tour and do it justice?
As the temperature rose to the upper 90s, McPherson grimly glanced at his watch and adjusted our route through the massive battlefield to respond to the interests of the teachers and our need for water. To keep us on track, he yelled “March!”
The day climaxed when our group of teachers, lead by General McPherson, replicated Pickett’s Charge, the famous and futile attempt by General Lee to break the Union middle by sending a mile-wide swath of 13,000 men into the teeth of the Federal guns.
As the doomed rebels marched forward, the Union troops let them approach to within a few hundred yards before ripping into the rebel line with cannon loaded with grape shot. Within minutes, thousands of Rebels were killed and wounded.
The ill-advised assault was a disaster. The battle of Gettysburg was over. General Robert E. Lee’s winning streak was broken, his aura of invincibility shattered.
Nearly 150 years later on the same march, our group suffered several wood ticks and a little sunburn.
Not one person complained.
After dazzling us with his knowledge for seven hours, Professor McPherson unceremoniously stepped off our bus and disappeared into the crowd at the Gettysburg Museum.
He left behind forty dumbfounded and grateful teachers who will never see Gettysburg the same way again.